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Purging Divisiveness, Embracing Difference

Purging Divisiveness, Embracing Difference

Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn’s manifesto against self-righteousness in interpersonal discourse


Introduction: A Teaching to Purify the Air

There’s an old joke about a Jew marooned on an island. When finally picked up by a passing ship the rescuers are bemused to find that the otherwise desolate island has no less than three synagogues. The marooned Jew explains: “The first is the one I pray in. The second is the one I don’t pray in. And the third? In the third I wouldn’t even be found dead!”

Too often, small differences play an outsized role in the formation of individual and group identity. Honest differences might emerge from the diversity of society. But divisiveness has its roots in the ego’s quest for authority. As a stand-in for the hard work of finding ourselves and making something of ourselves, we often take the lazier route of identifying who we are by differentiating ourselves from others. We are left with toxic bubbles of judgmental self-righteousness.

This is one of the crucial insights developed by Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1860-1920) in a short manifesto on social disharmony and its antidote.1 As is characteristic of the Chabad tradition, this treatise is based on a discourse by the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1815).2 It is said that he would repeat this particular teaching whenever he felt a need “to purify the air.”3

Scholars have often noted that the Hasidic masters developed the teachings of Lurianic Kabbalah in a distinctly psychological key.4 But Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s treatise is especially noteworthy for its sociological contribution: A fully developed kabbalistic theory of how to embrace difference and eradicate divisiveness.5

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Part 1: Repair Through Fragmentation in the Cosmos and in Cognition

One of the central contributions of Lurianic Kabbalah is the mystical doctrine of shattering and repair, as manifest in the cosmic realms of tohu (“chaos”) and tikkun (“repair”) respectively.6 In light of the many discussions of this narrative in Chabad teachings, these two realms can best be understood as competing blueprints for the inner workings of reality. Tohu and tikkun alike are composed of the ten modalities (sefirot) via which G‑d chooses to be manifest. But the structure of these two systems is fundamentally altered by a single distinction: In tohu each modality functions as an isolated point (nequdah bifnei atsmo), asserting its own being to the absolute degree. In tikkun the ten modalities function interinclusively (be’ofan shel hitqalalut). Each modality embraces the others, and is embraced in turn.7

In the psychological terms found in Chabad teachings, the governing characteristic of tohu is extreme egotism (yeshut) and fragmentation (hitḥalqut). Accordingly, each modality asserts itself exclusively. In the cosmos, tohu forms the ontological basis for the divisive chaos that so often takes hold in nature and society. In the human soul it is manifest in all kinds of disharmony, imbalance and ugliness. Whether in the cosmos, society or the soul, tohu results in shattering disaster.

By contrast, the governing characteristic of tikkun is self-effacement (bittul) and solidarity (aḥdut). Consequently, each modality receptively embraces all the other modalities, and they all function in concert. Tikkun is the ontological basis for the cosmic capacity for collaboration, repair and harmony—whether in nature, society, or the human soul.8

But do self-effacement and solidarity require us to surrender our critical faculties? Must we entirely suspend judgement and overlook all distinctions? Must our identities as individuals be entirely subsumed in submission to the collective?


While tohu is classically associated with fragmentation, Rabbi Shalom DovBer argues that there are in fact two kinds of fragmentation. The wrong kind of fragmentation leads to divisiveness and disaster. But the right kind of fragmentation leads to the highest form of solidarity and repair, to the eradication of divisiveness and the embrace of difference:

There are two forms of fragmentation (hitḥalqut).

The first is fragmentation that specifically causes the formation of divisiveness (pirud). For example, the fragmentation of essentialized capacities, which are fundamentally divided from one another. An example of this is the essential capacity for kindness and the essential capacity for discipline: they are in absolute separation and distinction from one another. If these capacities would be manifest as they are [in their essentialized state], they would not countenance each other at all. And this is the nature of the celestial sefirot of tohu: They were manifest as they are in their abstract state (be-peshitutan) … and therefore were absolutely antithetical and contradictory to one another …

The second form [of fragmentation] is the fragmentation that specifically causes interinclusion to emerge. That is when you divide and separate a single entity into many elements. For [in the case of] two things that are [fundamentally] divided, their fragmentation is the cause of divisiveness, as described above. But [in the case of] something that is [fundamentally] one, when it is divided into many elements this fragmentation is the cause of solidarity (aḥdut).9

There are two related points here, both of which are further developed in subsequent paragraphs. The first point is about essentialization and abstraction, or what we might call oversimplification: Divisive fragmentation occurs when different ideas are oversimplified, abstracted from the pragmatic complexities of real life application, and reduced to their absolute essence. This process accentuates the fundamental uniqueness of each element under analysis, isolating them and placing them in absolute opposition to one another.

This leads us to the second point, which relates to the axiomatic assumptions that shape the critical process of fragmentation: Divisive fragmentation assumes that differences are fundamental and it therefore reinforces those differences to the point of antithesis and rupture. Interinclusive fragmentation, on the other hand, assumes a fundamental oneness even as it critically identifies and differentiates all the multifarious elements of the whole. It therefore a process of repair, a pathway to cosmic reunification and cognitive empathy. In some ways, this might be seen as a chassidic prefiguring of contemporary intersectional theory. And as a chassidic prefiguring thereof, it can also be read as a critique of the same.10

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Part 2: An Intellectual Path from Superficiality to Solidarity

While divisive fragmentation arises organically from unbridled egotism, humility alone does not result in true solidarity. As Rabbi Shalom DovBer continues to explain, true solidarity can only arise from a cognitive process of critical analysis. The first step in this critical process is to recognize the composite nature of everything, indeed the dialectical nature of everything:

In each thing there is within it the thing and its opposite. Even [in the case of] the essentialized capacities, there is in each one of them the interinclusion of the opposite capacity. This is due to the essence [of all being] that transcends even the essentialized capacities. For in the essence they all exist in absolute interinclusion … they are all absolutely one … Due to this, also as the capacities exist as differentiated elements, hidden within each capacity there is the opposite capacity too.11

Since all individuated things ultimately emerge from the singular being of G‑d, the essence of all being, they are essentially one. This axiom enables the individual to examine reality in all its multifarious complexity without becoming entrapped in schismatic confusion, competition and contradiction. In Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s own words:

Every conception … at the beginning of its manifestation is like a general point without any differentiated details, and by default it is oppositional to the import of another conception, which appears to be the opposite of this conception. But through the capacity of wisdom and intellection one dissects the conception into the many components and details within it, including many things that are contradictory and oppositional. And as explained above that from the perspective of the essence there is in each thing the interinclusion of its opposite, likewise in each conceptual matter there must be many things that are different and antithetical to one another, and when one dissects the conception well, in its details, each conceptual matter must become specified in many different directions and matters that are different from one another. Only that [these differences are overcome because one understands that] there is reason and logic for each [specific distinction], or that the one reason and logic mandates a thing and its opposite, in which case they are [actually] not oppositional to one another. On the contrary, they strengthen and assist one another. And specifically through this one grasps the matter very well (very cleanly and clearly), and one grasps it from every side and angle that is within it. And by default [the concept] can connect and integrate itself with another concept, for they are not oppositional to one another. On the contrary, they assist one another.12

Every new idea is initially grasped only superficially. At the outset, therefore, it appears to be utterly distinct, even antithetical, to other ideas that you are familiar with. But once you have taken the time to study the new idea more thoroughly, exploring its multifarious avenues of implication and application, a far more sophisticated conception is grasped. It is this critical process of dissection that allows you to see how one idea intersects with many different ideas, including those that initially appeared to stand in opposition to it. Ostensibly contradictory conclusions can likewise be seen to derive from shared axioms that must be applied differently in varying circumstances and contexts.

The initial conception is superficial and rigid. The analytic process stretches the conception and makes it supple, even agile. But the key ingredient in this transformation is not simply intellectual prowess. As Rabbi Shalom DovBer puts it:

This capacity to dissect each matter into many components, such that they should unite and connect many opposites together, derives from the self-effacement that is vested in the intellectual faculties… Something that is rigid, due to its thickness and egotism cannot be bent to any side. But something that is supple, due to the suppleness that is essentially within it is able to turn in every direction. Similarly is understood regarding the intellectual faculties…13

Some might see such suppleness as a sign of intellectual weakness. But for Rabbi Shalom DovBer the essential strength of the intellectual faculties lies in their capacity to transcend the divisive bias of brittle first impressions. In the face of contradiction and confusion the intellectual faculties do not simply surrender to the transcendent bliss of mystical union. Instead they think harder, broader, deeper. They selflessly affirm difference and thereby construct a truer, more rigorous, solidarity:

True interinclusion and solidarity is when multifarious elements unite with one another, and support one another, to the degree that no beginning and end is found … for they each receive from one another … Such unity is much greater than the unity of capacities as they are encompassed in the essence. For their interinclusion [therein] is [merely] because they are not recognizably in existence [their existence being subsumed and extinguished within the essence]. But fundamentally they have no solidarity and connection with one another. On the contrary, they [the abstract capacities that are encompassed in the essence] are antithetical to one another, and if they will become manifest they will be in opposition to one another, as explained above. But here [via the critical process of dissection] they unite with one another to the degree that here there are no opposites or opponents at all. On the contrary, they strengthen and support one another … It transpires that it is specifically the fragmentation that comes from intellection that brings to true solidarity.14

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Part 3: A Conversational Path of Diagnosis, Therapy, and Repair

This theory of solidarity through cognitive dissection was already articulated by the second Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi DovBer Schneuri of Lubavitch (“the Mitteler Rebbe,” 1773-1827).15 His great-grandson, Rabbi Shalom DovBer, did much to condense, crystallize and clarify the expansive flow of insight that is so characteristic of the teachings of the Mittler Rebbe. But Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s more significant contribution is the shift in focus from the psychological realm to the social realm. For him, the fundamental question is how these cognitive and psychological processes play out between people, in interpersonal relations and in interpersonal discourse.

In the celestial realm of tohu egotism is manifest as a series of isolated “points” (nequdim), each of which asserts itself so absolutely and exclusively that a shattering disaster results. In the social realm egotism is inevitably manifest as unwarranted hatred, which is often manifest in varying degrees of contempt even before it erupts in open quarrelsomeness. Rabbi Shalom DovBer subjects the notion of “unwarranted hatred” to intense scrutiny, and the picture that emerges is not pretty:

Though he has done no evil to him at all, and has not touched anything of his … he cannot stand him, and hates him to the ultimate degree … The cause of this is only his own egotism, which does not allow any room for the other, and the other is in opposition to him just by default of existing in the world, by virtue of which the other lessens his selfhood, and therefore he is unable to stand him, and hates him, and certainly cannot connect with him … The fact that he says the opposite of the other is not because his intellect mandates it, rather he says what he wants to and not what is mandated by logic. And why does he want it so? Only because his fellow wants it otherwise… This arises from the division of hearts, the fact that they cannot stand one another, and therefore they are opponents of one another. And through this the vitally needed communal cause is lost, and they give no regard for this at all, for the main thing is their own egotism.16

Before setting out the repairing antidote to this kind of social shattering, Rabbi Shalom DovBer emphasizes that “the sin of unwarranted hatred is especially found among [so-called] servants of G‑d, each of whom build a platform for himself through studying Torah according to his own opinion and intellection specifically, and likewise in worship (avodah), each [builds a platform for himself] according to his wisdom specifically, and they do not unite and connect with another.”17 It is particularly with this constituency in mind that he prescribes a practice of dialogical conversation aimed at the embrace of difference in the quest for truth:

It is a foundation and great fundamental … that they should connect and speak to one another. Whether regarding matters of Torah study, … for one cannot insist that the truth is in accord with your own intellection when one hears the insight of his friend and they truthfully debate one another. Thereby they come to the truth of the matter. Likewise in matters of worship (avodah), [it is a foundation and great fundamental] that they reveal the flaws of their hearts to one another, and discuss this. There are several good elements to this:

Firstly, there are many flaws that one does not find in oneself (he himself is oblivious) due to self love … and his friend alerts him to this.

Furthermore, when one reveal the flaws of one’s heart in speech, in the moment that he speaks of this he is greatly pained by this in his soul, far more so than he was pained previously. Thereby in his soul he regrets all the things that are not good and uproots his desire from them, through which he is greatly repaired…

Additionally, when they discuss together, each one generates solutions to this, how to repair, and they make a resolution of commitment for the future, to correct their deeds like so and like so. And a resolution that is made by two or many has a far greater strength than a resolution that one makes alone…18

The critical process of honest conversation helps individuals a) to identify flaws in their thinking and character, b) to experience meaningful and therapeutic regret, and c) to curate solutions and cooperatively resolve to implement them. What is crucial, however, is not simply that people talk to one another. But rather that they do so in a spirit of self-effacement:

All this occurs when the individual has humility (bittul) and is able to unite with—and bring himself close to—his fellow. But when asserting one’s existence egotistically, one is by default utterly unable reveal the flaws of one’s heart to the other. Or if thinking the other to be very inferior, [one thinks] how then can one reveal to him all one’s issues, and what will it help? …The main factor is that he is fundamentally unable to unite with the other… He stands on his opinion… and is not at all receptive to the argument of the other, to honestly listen and to assess it without extraneous bias. When this is so, on the contrary, when they discuss an intellectual issue together, they become more divided, and become greater opponents to one another… And the same applies in matters of worship…19

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Part 4: Self-Criticism as an Antidote to Self-Righteousness

The repairing effect of interpersonal dialogue is entirely dependent on a stance of receptivity and self-effacement. There may be certain special people for whom such a stance is natural. But most of us find it very difficult to escape our innate self-interest. Whether consciously or unconsciously, it is likely the most salient force in all our interactions and endeavors. At the heart of Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s discussion is a scathing exposé of the underlying selfishness that taints religious activity and spiritual discourse, focusing in two general paths of religious devotion.20

The first, “joyful devotion,” is inspired by deep contemplation and clear recognition of the greatness and wonder of G‑d’s glory, which is simultaneously transcendent and immanent. Through such contemplation “the richness of divinity shines in one’s soul, and then one rejoices very much in one’s soul… In general terms this is worship out of love…”21

The second form of devotion is characterized by self-abasement (shiflut) and regret (merirut), and is inspired by an acknowledgment of one’s personal imperfections and one’s corresponding distance from G‑d. Such contemplation leads one “to become regretful in one’s soul, and to cry in one’s soul’s bitterness over the vastness of one’s distance [from G‑d].”22

Rabbi Shalom DovBer expands on the methods and merits of each of these devotional paths before exposing the ways they can successfully disguise one’s “egotism and bloatedness,”
even from oneself.

The first example, joyful devotion, is fundamentally self affirming. It stems from a subjective sense of cognitive illumination, of appreciation and love for G‑d. It is inherently rooted in the self and inherently celebrates the personal spiritual achievements of the individual. Accordingly, it is particularly vulnerable to the taints of self-interest and egotistical self-righteousness.

This vulnerability, Rabbi Shalom DovBer notes, can be forewarned by initially focusing only on the existential implications of G‑d’s glorious presence, i.e. the effacement and enfolding of all things within G‑d’s infinite self. Only afterwards can you allow yourself the luxury of subjectively appreciating “the good taste in the transcendence and wondrousness of the Infinite,” together with the feelings of joy and love that such appreciation inspires. The initial experience of existential effacement carries through to the second stage, so that the joyful devotion that follows is likewise marked by humility and self-abnegation.23

The threat involved in the second path of devotion, characterized by self-abasement and regret, is actually even more severe. The egotism it may harbour is doubly insidious precisely because it would appear to work against the biases of self-interest. Yet here too, even as one experiences bitter regret, it is possible that “concealed in one’s soul there is aggrandizement and joy,” a sense of egotistical self-righteousness and self-satisfaction “that one is a servant of G‑d.”24

Self-critical introspection must itself be assessed with self-critical discernment. Only if one is truly and unreservedly regretful will this process of self-abnegation lead to spiritual repair and improvement, and to true refinement of character. If, on the other hand, it is tainted by egotistical self-regard, its inherent fallacy will be expressed in a degree of contempt for another individual who has achieved any level of success in their own devotion to G‑d. Such contempt is nothing less than unwarranted hatred. Not only does it betray the egotism inherent in that person’s devotional self-abnegation, it also reveals that they have no desire at all for the spiritual good of others or that there should be people in the world who devote themselves to G‑d.25

With these examples, among others, Rabbi Shalom DovBer holds up introspective mirror that can aid the reader in the hard work of self-critical reflection. To think that you are somehow inoculated from egotism and bias is to highlight the inherent insidiousness of these traits:

All of the above things might be bloated or subtle, each individual according to their stature and the station of their service. They might be so subtle that you don’t detect them yourself. Yet they exist, concealed in your soul… This [i.e. egotism and unwarranted hatred] is much more serious than any particular bad character trait … being the source and cause of all bad character traits … Therefore one who has concern for his soul … must search, with one inspection after another, by the light of a candle, “the candle of G‑d is the soul of man,” and look in all the crevices and cracks, to find all aspects of the bad elements mentioned above … and to eradicate them entirely from your soul…26

The ultimate concern in this process of introspection, is not simply to repair your own soul, but rather to achieve a greater social healing. It is only through erasing egotism that we can erase divisiveness, and engage constructively in the critical work of interpersonal discourse and repair. Without a solid foundation of rigorous self-criticism we cannot hope to avoid bias, and we cannot hope to engage empathetically with others. Our criticisms of others may be legitimate. But if our motive is to bolster the perception of our own piety in the eyes of our listeners, our criticisms are reduced to disparagements. A discourse of disparagement serves neither the interests of our fellows, nor the interest of G‑d. A discourse of disparagement foments social shattering when instead we should be seeking spiritual solidarity.

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Part 5: The Vengeance of HavayahA Theology of Radical Solidarity

As is typical of Chabad teachings, Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s treatise is framed as a hermeneutical commentary to a biblical passage. What is remarkable here is that rather than choosing a passage that commands love of one’s fellow or the like, the passage with which this treatise begins commands a genocidal war against the Midianite nation:

The Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Wage the vengeance of the Israelites against the Midianites…” So Moses spoke to the people, saying, “… carry out the vengeance of G‑d against Midian.”27

After probing these passages for apparent inconsistencies, irrelevancies, and grammatical anomalies, Rabbi Shalom DovBer follows Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in declaring that Midian is a conjugate of the Hebrew word madon, meaning feud or quarrel. In a direct inversion of their literal meaning, these passages are to be read as commanding a genocidal war against quarrelsomeness, a campaign to erase the egotistical divisiveness that is rooted in our own souls. Moses terms this war “the vengeance of G‑d,” which implies that quarrelsomeness is not merely a social ill, but a sin against G‑d.28

Crucially, G‑d is referred to here with the ineffable four letter name (“the Tetragrammaton”) spelled by the letters yod, hei, vov, and hei, which in hasidic texts is rendered as havayah (“being”). It is a central tenet of Chabad teaching that havayah is the luminous face of divine unity, the divine force that embraces all differentiated beings and brings all differentiated beings into existence.29 Divisiveness (madon or midian) acts against this divine force. Unwarranted hatred directed at one’s fellow human is an affront to havayah, a sabotaging of the divine unity that embraces all being.30

The theological element introduced here isn’t simply window dressing. It provides the fundamental ontological and theoretical basis for Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s vision of how divisiveness can be overcome. The cognitive process of repair through fragmentation, as described earlier in this article, requires an assumption that all things are fundamentally one. Only then can difference be embraced through an understanding that critically acknowledges all the multifarious elements of the whole. This assumptions stands on the theological principle that G‑d is the singular whole in which all the multifarious elements of reality are encompassed.31

This bring Rabbi Shalom DovBer to a question that drives much of Kabbalistic discourse: If all being is a function of the singular being of G‑d, a function of havayah, how and why does difference and divisiveness emerge?32

The standard answer, in Chabad teachings and elsewhere, is that the unifying luminosity of havayah is masked by a second mode of divine manifestation, denoted by a second name by which G‑d is identified, eloqim (“powers”). The plural conjugation of eloqim indicates that it constitutes the divine capacity for multiplicity and differentiation.33

But Rabbi Shalom DovBer points out that such a bifurcation of roles is an oversimplification. It avoids the question, but does not address it. These two modes of divine manifestation—one characterized by unity and illumination, the other by multiplicity and masquerade—function together to create all the multifariousness of the cosmos. Indeed, to distinguish between them would be to risk heresy. G‑d is one, singular and unified, and havayah and elokim simply mark the dialectic of creation; in the creation of physical matter out of nothing (ex nihilo) divine omnipotence is at once revealed and enveloped in the veil of materiality. Revealed and enveloped, havayah and eloqim.34

This dialectic itself demands explanation. If havayah and eloqim are fundamentally one, if they embrace all of creation together, why is so much emphasis placed on the distinction between them?35

It is here, in probing what might seem to be the most esoteric of theological abstractions, that Rabbi Shalom DovBer discovers the root of social-disharmony and its antidote. “The creations that are created via the name eloqim… to be… multifarious distinct elements… in truth are the revelation of the multifarious elements that are in the Essence.” Social disharmony, in other words, is rooted in the very essence of divine being. “The Infinite, by virtue of its completeness, carries within itself multifariosity without limit…”36

Arising from the completeness of G‑d’s essential being, this multifariosity embodies the ultimate form of solidarity. Opposites do not stand in opposition to each other. Not merely do opposites support each other, they are fundamentally one with each other. The essence is not a union of parts, but an undifferentiated whole that fundamentally embraces an infinite range of diversities. All the diversities of created reality are encompassed within the singularity of the essence to the point of synonymy. In Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s own words, “all is within it in unity and literal singularity… It is impossible to speak there of distinct elements and of the unification of the elements…”37

The paradox is insurmountable. But this is precisely the point: “This is the very definition of completion, specifically that it carries opposites and is not one dimensional.” The essence of divine being, by virtue of its infinite completion, is multifarious and singular at once. It transpires that the dialectic between havayah and eloqim, between unity and diversity, is not merely a factor in creation. It is a fundamental property of G‑d’s essential being. Another way of saying this is that radical solidarity is the only characteristic we can legitimately ascribe to G‑d.38

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Conclusion: Seeing Difference Through the Prism of Truth

The process of creation is such that the diversity of reality is brought to the fore. The proverbial trees are granted a sense of individuality, and the fact that they constitute a single wood is increasingly forgotten. Solidarity gives way to difference. Egotism transforms difference into divisiveness. Quarrelsomeness and hatred take hold.

As noted above, however, havayah is inseparable from eloqim. Havayah too is subject to this cosmic process of fragmentation, but it does not lose its integrity. It preserves its identity as the luminous face of G‑d’s all embracing presence, and it is the mission of man to unveil it.39 To overcome divisiveness is to draw the unifying luminosity of havayah into the open so that we may perceive the fundamental truth of all things, so that we may see the ways in which opposites support and constitute one another. To overcome divisiveness is not to erase difference but to see difference through the prism of truth.

In the concluding sections of his treatise Rabbi Shalom DovBer point to “the Torah, which is called truth” as the conduit through which truth and harmony can be achieved:

The characteristic of kindness has an opponent, which is the characteristic of discipline that opposes kindness. Likewise the characteristic of discipline has an opponent, which is the characteristic of kindness that opposes discipline. But an arbitration that is comprised of the correct blend of kindness and discipline together does not have any opponent. Such is the characteristic of truth, the true nature of which is specifically [attained] when it has within it all the opposites and carries them all.40

Here we have the notion that Torah stands above partisanship. Torah embodies a critical framework within which the arbitration of truth can be attained. To be a student of the Torah is to strive to transcend you own bias, to see things from a perspective that is not only higher, but also broader than one’s own. The importance of honest and open conversation between Torah scholars has already been discussed. But here Rabbi Shalom DovBer adds a further point about what it means to seek truth:

In each thing, the truth that is within it is its midpoint, which is that which is able to connect with the thing that is its opposite.41

A truth seeker does not impose truth from above, but seeks it in the core of every person and every thing. And when you find the midpoint, the point which has the capacity to overcome polarization and connect with its opposite, then you know that you have found the point of truth.

Moses was the greatest teacher of the Torah of truth. It is not coincidental that he is described as “very humble, more than any man on the face of the earth.”42 Nor is it coincidental that after instructing him to “wage the vengeance of the Israelites against the Midianites” G‑d adds that “afterwards you shall be gathered to your people,” meaning that the earthly life of Moses will come to an end. This was to be the culmination of the lifework of Moses. His final mission as leader of the Jewish people would be to carry out the purge of divisiveness, to wage a war of radical solidarity, the vengeance of havayah.43

The seventh rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, noted that Maimonides listed “waging the war of havayah” among the identifying achievements of the Messiah.44 Characteristically, the Rebbe interpreted this in light of hasidic teachings: Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov taught that “a spark of the Messiah is within every individual.”45 This messianic spark enables each individual to achieve personal victory in the battle to actualize the ideal of collective wholesomeness, which will in turn actualize the messianic advent from which no individual will be excluded.46

Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Quntras Hiḥoltsu (Kehot Publication Society: New York, 1948). Also published in Idem., Sefer Ha-maamarim 5659 (Kehot Publication Society: New York, 1977-2005), 53-81. In the citations below a will refer not to page numbers but to section numbers, of which there are thirty-two. For an earlier discussion of this treatise, see Naftali Loewenthal, ““The Thickening of the Light”: The Kabbalistic-Hasidic Teachings of Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn in Their Social Context,” in Jonatan Meir and Gadi Sagiv (eds.), Habad Hasidism: History, Thought, Image (The Zalman Shazar Center: Jerusalem, 2016), 15*-19*.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Liqutei Torah—Bamidbar (Kehot Publication Society: New York, 1999), 85d-88b; Idem., Sefer Hamaamarim 5566 Vol. 2 (Kehot Publication Society: New York, 2012), 590-609.
Rabbi Yosef Yitshak Schneersohn, Igrot Qodesh Vol. 6 (Kehot Publication Society: New York, 1983). 267; Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Hayom Yom (Kehot Publication Society: New York, 1943), entry for the 28th of Tammuz. Cf., Sefer Ha-maamarim 5659, 224.
On the case of Chabad specifically see Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken Books: New York, 1941), 340-341; Norman Lamm, The Religious Thought of Hasidism: Text and Commentary (Yeshiva University Press, 1999), 60, n. 16. On this phenomenon in Hasidism more generally see Jonathan Garb, Yearnings of the Soul: Psychological Thought in Modern Kabbalah (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2015), esp. 11, 59-65.
For an important critique of, and corrective to, the general failure of scholars to note the sociological content of hasidic teachings see Philip Wexler, Mystical Sociology: Towards Cosmic Social Theory (Peter Lang Publishing: New York, 2013), esp. XII, 50-69, and 136-142.
See Scholem, Major Trends, 265-268; Lawrence Fine, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 134-138.
For samples that are among the many texts that could be cited see Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Torah Ohr (Kehot Publication Society: New York, 2001), 8c-10b; Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Sefer Hamaamarim 5665 (Kehot Publication Society: New York, 2012), 95-109. See also the relevant discussions in Rachel Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Habad Hasidism (SUNY Press: Albany, 1993), 203-205; Eli Rubin, Living with the Times: Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Oral Teachings <>, Part Two. See further discussions and citations in Elliot R. Wolfson, Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (Columbia University Press: New York, 2009), under the entries “chaos” and “tikkun” in the index.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Liqutei Torah—Bamidbar, 87b; Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Quntras Hiḥoltsu, Sections 3 and 4.
Quntras Hiḥoltsu, end of Section 5
For a related discussion of the applications of the kabbalistic doctrine of tohu and tikkun to social theory and the overcoming of social challenges see Philip Wexler, Holy Sparks: Social Theory, Education and Religion (St. Martins Press: New York, 1996), esp. 125-132.
Quntras Hiḥoltsu, Section 6.
Ibid., Section 7.
See Rabbi DovBer Schneuri, Torat Ḥayim—Noach (Kehot Publication Society: New York, 1993), 70a-73b.
Quntras Hiḥoltsu, Section 9.
Ibid., Section 10.
Ibid.. This coincidence of self-effacement, honesty, and constructively critical conversation, will be recognizable to those familiar with the praxis of Habad hasidism as a theorization of the farbrengen; literally a “gathering” in which hasidim sit together and talk about their shared project of service to G‑d. Several scholars have paid attention to the phenomenon of the farbrengen from ethnographic and sociological perspectives, but they tend to be limited in scope and fail to account for the diversity of forms that the farbrengen can take. A farbrengen can be hierarchical in structure, with the Rebbe or a senior hasid leading the participants in song and offering words of inspiration and guidance. But a farbrengen can also be horizontal in structure, with two or more equal partners, speaking heart to heart with one another, as described here. It may well be argued that it is the latter model that is perceived as the highest exemplar of what Naftali Loewenthal has described as “a kind of art form within the Habad community.” See Naftali Loewenthal, “Hasidism and Modernity: The Case of Habad," in Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies, Vol. 11, Division C, Volume II (1993): 109-16. See also the brief comments on the need to provide a better theoretical account of the farbrengen in Wexler, Mystical Sociology, 68. On women’s participation in farbrengens as well as other ethnographic perspectives on the phenomenon, see Ellen Koskoff, Music in Lubavitcher Life (University of Illinois Press: 2000). See also Damián Setton, “The consumption of alcohol in the Lubavitch Movement in Buenos Aires. Diversity of meanings,” in Antropólogos Iberoamericanos en Red, Volume 8 Issue 3 (September - December 2013), 345 - 366.
Ibid., Sections 12-16.
Ibid., beginning of Section 12.
Ibid., beginning of Section 13.
Ibid., Section 14.
Ibid., end of Section 11.
Ibid., Section 16.
Quntras Hiḥoltsu, beginning of Section 3. Compare Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “Hiḥoltsu,” in Sefer Ha-maamarim 5740 (Vaad Hanoches Hatimimim: New York, 1988), 191:“The feud and quarrel among Israel is a feud with our father in heaven.”
See Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Shaar Ha-yiḥud Ve-ha-emunah, esp. Chapter 4.
Quntras Hiḥoltsu, Section 17.
See for example Tanya, Liqutei Amaraim, Chapter 48, pages 68b: “G‑d’s knowledge encompasses the entire thickness of the globe of the earth and everything that is in it… all in literal reality, for this knowledge is the life of the entire thickness of the earth in its entirety and its creation from nothing to something… In knowing Himself He knows all the creations, and not in knowing an object external to Himself…”
Quntras Hiḥoltsu, beginning of Section 18.
Ibid.. See also Tanya, Shaar Ha-yiḥud Ve-ha-emunah, Chapters 4-6; Idem., Siddur Im Dach (Kehot Publication Society: New York 2012), 142d. See also the relevant discussion and citations in Wolfson, Open Secret, 82-84.
Compare Wolfson, Ibid.: “The harnessing of the names [havayah and eloqim] … alludes to … the paradox that the concealed light of the Infinite is revealed in the garment that is the world through which it is concealed…” The point in R. Shalom DovBer's discussion is not merely to point out the paradox, but also to problematize the distinction that is normally understood to be signified by these names. It emerges that havayah is vested in the specific pluralities of the created beings to precisely the same degree that eloqim is.
Quntras Hiḥoltsu, Section 19.
Ibid., Section 20.
Ibid. Compare Wolfson, Open Secret, 77-79: “To appropriate the language of Heidegger… the integration of opposites is not “the coalescence and obliteration of distinctions,” but rather “the belonging together of that which is foreign” … The traditional theological notion of divine omnipotence, and the corollary idea that nothing is impossible before G‑d, is understood precisely in terms of the capacity of opposites to be combined in the power of the infinite.” For a more extensive discussion of the centrality of paradox in Habad teaching and practice, and its aim to cultivate a mystical piety that depends on the contemplation on the mysterious encompassment of “two opposites in one subject,” see Idem., “Nequddat ha-Reshimu — The Trace of Transcendence and the Transcendence of the Trace: The Paradox of Ṣimṣum in the RaShaB’s Hemsheck Ayin Beit,” in Kabbalah 30 (2013), 92-105.
The function of havayah as the unifier within the multifariousness of creation is lucidly articulated by the seventh rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson: “Havayah is a conjugate of ‘create’ [mehavah] (it is that which creates from nothing to something), and also from the conjugation of ‘past, present, and future’ [hayah, hoveh, ve-yiyeh]. Meaning, its purpose is in the place where the creations exist, and likewise within the confines of time (‘past, present, and future’), yet it achieves within them unity, past, present, and future at once … Rather than there being multiplicity, divisiveness, quarrelsomeness and hatred, to the point of unwarranted hatred, it achieves that there shall be unity, peace, and love, to the point of unwarranted love.” See Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “Hiḥoltsu,” in Sefer Ha-maamarim 5740 (Vaad Hanoches Hatimimim: New York, 1988), 189.
Quntras Hiḥoltsu, Section 30.
Quntras Hiḥoltsu, Sections 1-3 and Section 17; Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Liqutei Torah—Bamidbar (Kehot Publication Society: New York, 1999), 85d-88b; Rabbi DovBer Schneuri, Torat Ḥayim—Noach (Kehot Publication Society: New York, 1993), 70a-73b.
Maimonides, Laws of Kings, end of Chapter 11.
Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Ma’or Einayim, Pinchat, as paraphrased in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “Hiḥoltsu,” in Sefer Ha-maamarim 5740 (Vaad Hanoches Hatimimim: New York, 1988), 192.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Ibid..
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JJ Udkoff October 26, 2017

Beautiful Eli! amazing job as always! Keep all the good stuff coming! from an old friend. Reply

MH Tel Aviv October 18, 2017

I must say, this was one of the most complex esoteric works I've read recently. The essence struck such a deep chord, the raw, bare core of transcending the human experience and awakening to the truth of what we are . I'll be re-reading this several times over my lifetime. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Reply

Olga E. Turcotte Cambridge, MA October 17, 2017

"A Truth Seeker does not impose Truth from above" This is an incredibly complex article that took me a while to read. I do not presume to understand it all but the little that I did made me realize that it deals with a very timely as well as a timeless subject: finding unity in our diversity without losing our individuality. Together we are not only stronger but more complete and a little more like the Infinite. Thank You. Reply