The Litvak

The colleagues of Schneur Zalman of Liadi, fellow students of the Great Magid, were fond of calling him “the Litvak.” They were predominantly from the lands of Poland, Ukraine, Romania and the Carpathians, lands where the romantic spirit of Chassidism resonated with open hearts. Schneur Zalman was culturally Lithuanian, which, in Jewish terms, meant cold, calculated and rigorously intellectual. While the other disciples of the Magid could be found in the ecstasy of their prayer at any time of day, any day of the week, Rabbi Schneur Zalman kept to a strict schedule of prayer, study of Talmud, Halachah, and of course, Kabbalah. Only on Shabbat did he allow himself to step out of the bounds of time and schedule—since, after all, this was the time for outstepping bounds.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman was too young to have studied under the Baal Shem Tov directly—he was fifteen years of age at his passing, and it is doubtful that he even knew of his existence at that age. At 22 years of age, he became the youngest student of the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, “The Mezeritcher Magid.”

When a question of Jewish ritual law arose, the Magid would refer it to this youngest disciple, calling him not the Litvak, but “the Rav”—the authority on matters of Jewish law. At the Magid’s behest, he composed an updated version of the Shulchan Aruch—the Code of Jewish Law—which became one of the most important compendia of halachah in modern times. His short, pithy work on ethics and theology, known as “The Tanya,” rapidly gained the status of a classic and is studied in every sort of yeshivah today as essential reading in Jewish thought, and simply, “how to be a Jew.”

Clarity was key—not only the heart, but the mind as well, must hold some grasp of the divine.

It was in this work, along with many of his spoken talks transcribed by his students, that he brought into clear definition, in concise, articulate words and metaphor, exactly what the Baal Shem Tov and the Magid had to say. In the process, he wove those teachings into his particular approach to spiritual service, one that leveraged the mind as the gateway to the heart—quite similar to how we understand cognitive psychology today. Clarity was key—not only the heart, but the mind as well, must hold some grasp of the divine. He called it “Chabad,” an acronym for the three primary intellectual faculties, chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding) and daat (knowing). The Baal Shem Tov taught that “G‑d wants the heart.” R. Schneur Zalman taught a path for each person to awaken that heart from its slumber.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s teacher, the Magid, was the rabbi’s rabbi. It was he who sent disciples to every part of Eastern Europe to spread the word of the Baal Shem Tov, to establish themselves as community leaders and build the great network of the rapidly growing Chassidic movement. Yet more than any of the disciples, it was Rabbi Schneur Zalman who bore the brunt of opposition to the movement. Back in his home territory, among his fellow Litvaks, he was forced to defend every teaching of the chassidim within the rigorous framework of orthodox Judaism. His response was unwavering: whatever the Baal Shem Tov or the Magid had taught, if they had truly taught it, could be sourced within the accepted classics—the Talmud, Maimonides, Zohar and other classic works. Nothing here was new—this is the faith of our fathers. Only the emphasis had changed.

The notion of detailed providence was a flashpoint of attack. To the opponents of Chassidism, the idea smacked of nothing less than pagan pantheism. It was bad enough for the Lithuanian scholar to be told that G‑d could be found as equally in the simple prayers of a peasant as in the sophisticated studies of the talmudist; but to discover that G‑d Himself had been introduced back into this banal world was outright heresy. G‑d supervised His world indeed—from His heavenly realm above, looking down upon those who mattered, as a king might glance out the windows of his palace upon his kingdom. But to say that G‑d was found in the dungheap of physical existence itself seemed the epitome of crudeness—and the ultimate apostasy.

To say that G‑d was found in the dungheap of physical existence itself seemed the epitome of crudeness—and the ultimate apostasy.

In one debate, R. Schneur Zalman quoted directly from the Zohar, “No place is void of Him.” His opponents retorted that this was a matter that bore implications in Jewish law, and the Zohar could not be cited for such matters. He then provided a passage from the Talmud, “Rabbi Yochanan, when he would see a kingfisher, would declare, ‘Your judgments are over the great deep.’”1 Rashi, the classic commentator, there explains: G‑d makes a judgment, which fish will be caught when, by which bird.

For polemics, this may have satisfied some. But the cognitive dissonance remained. To resolve this, a new paradigm was needed. And yet the paradigm had to emerge from classic and well-accepted legacy. Nothing of the earlier sages of Kabbalah or of Maimonides’ code could be rejected—on the contrary, these must serve the basis of the paradigm. Somehow, traditional texts themselves had to provide the basis for a rational reframing of everything.

The artisan and his craft

Here are R. Schneur Zalman’s own words. Keep in mind that he is not countering the traditionalist philosophers cited above. Rather, he is concerned with those who deny the possibility that the Creator of this world could still have any relevance to His creation. In his times, this was a popular stance among many educated people, generally called deism—G‑d set up His world like clockwork, and then walked off. Maimonides had already countered their argument. Rabbi Schneur Zalman began with that seed of an idea. As the history of philosophy turns mostly in repetitive circles, Maimonides had also countered a similar idea of certain Muslim thinkers in his times. Maimonides responded that they err by considering G‑d a “Maker,” like a carpenter who builds a chest, rather than an effective force without whom that effect ceases to exist.2 Rabbi Schneur Zalman takes that seed of an idea and runs with it:3

They make a false comparison, comparing G‑d’s act of making heaven and earth to how human beings manipulate their world.

Once a silversmith has produced a utensil, that utensil is no longer dependent on the hands of the silversmith. Even as it leaves his hands and goes its way in the market, it retains its structure and form just as when it left its artisan’s hands.

That is how these fools imagine the work of heaven and earth. But their eyes are blinded from perceiving the enormous distinction between the work of man and his manipulations—whereby he makes something from something, simply changing the form and appearance from the appearance of an ingot of silver to the appearance of a utensil—and the work of heaven and earth, which is something out of nothing.

Cause and effect surrounds us at every turn. Wind blows and trees bend. The sea pounds and cliffs turn to sand. Air pressure drops and clouds turn to rain. In R. Schneur Zalman’s example, the smith fires and molds the metal, transforming a hunk of silver into a finely decorated drinking goblet.

The chain of cause and effect is not only “out there,” but also “in here”—as an experience within our own selves: The mind ponders and emotions are stirred. As emotions awaken, they cause conscious, articulated thoughts to run through the mind, and those conscious thoughts burst forth as spoken words.

In each case, nothing new has occurred. It may look new to us, due to our limited scope of vision, but indeed we discover that all was hidden there to begin with, in potential within the antecedent state. When one thing interacted with another, something else arose. Something emerged out of something. Not creation; transformation.

That’s what allows this new goblet to go its way in the market, retaining its form independent of its artisan. Or your emotions to take on a life of their own even after you’ve forgotten about whatever it was that awakened them. Because their form existed—potentially—before the artisan crafted them or the mind aroused them.

So, too, if the Creator had taken some primordial gunk and formed from it a universe, that universe would no longer be in need of its Creator. The laws of this universe would be predicated upon the nature of this substance from which it was created. Gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces—all these would not be the work of a Creator, but absolute givens, the stuff from which this Creator fashioned a world. He could now walk away from that Creation and it would run perfectly fine on auto-cruise.

Something from nothing

What happens, however, when there’s nothing to start with? No gunk. Zero energy. No laws of how things must be and how things cannot be. No space—not even a concept of space. No time—not even a concept of time. Let’s say the world was not concocted out of a Duncan Hines mix, but from scratch. From “anything could happen.” What then?

Let’s say, for example, that instead of reforming this hunk of metal into a goblet, I’m going to have it talk to me. Or flash lights at me. Or even entertain and interact with me. None of those things are naturally within the repertoire of the inert material in my hands. To do any of this will require more than restructuring. I’ll have to actually connect the rearranged metal (plus some silicon and other substances) to a power source.

It’s one thing to give form to metal. It’s another thing to make it talk to you.

You’ve probably heard one of the many tech support tales of customers calling to complain that “everything disappeared!” When the tech support agent has gone through his entire protocol of requests, he finally asks the customer to check if the computer is plugged in.

“I can’t do that!” the customer complains.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s dark in here. There must have been a power failure or something.”

The customer is not a fool. The customer is confused. Fifty years of using a typewriter—electronic ones, too—and letters never disappeared from the page. He simply has not been able to adjust to a new paradigm, that of the plugged-in world. A world that doesn’t need to be erased or shredded in order to disappear—all that’s needed is to pull the plug, and all trace of it is gone as though it never was.

Truthfully, I cannot cease to wonder how those who lived in the pre-plugged-in world could have conceived of such notions. Nevertheless, R. Schneur Zalman certainly managed to, in classic biblical terms, while employing Aristotelian logic:

Something from nothing is a greater wonder than the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, which we can use as an analogy. For then, G‑d drove the sea back with a mighty east wind all night long until the sea split and stood firmly upright like a solid wall.

Now, if G‑d had interrupted the wind, immediately the water would have reverted to its standard, natural state, flowing downward.

Undoubtedly, it would not have remained standing as a wall—despite the fact that this property of water to flow is also a creation, a “something” that has been generated out of the void and not a necessary condition of existence. After all, a wall of stones stands on its own without a wind. It is just that this is not the nature of water.

Yet, so far, we are only discussing the emergence of new, unprecedented phenomena. Creation ex nihilo goes far beyond that—the very substance of existence must be generated as well. Until this point, R. Schneur Zalman has been able to present his argument from phenomena within our common experience. For this next step, he can only appeal to an a fortiori argument:

How much more so when it comes to creation of something from nothing, which transcends nature in a way far more wondrous than the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The argument is much stronger: If the Creator’s force would withdraw from the creation—heaven forbid—the creation would revert to a null state of absolute void.

Rather, the effective force must be found within its effect continually to vitalize it and sustain it. This effective force is those articulations of speech from the Ten Utterances by which all was created.

The very act of existence requires a sustaining flow of creative energy. But unlike the metaphor of the Red Sea or the LED display, it is not simply a new phenomenon that is being generated. It is existence itself. Energy, matter, time and space. The very patterns and parameters of nature. The splitting of the Red Sea began with a sea, and with certain laws of nature that just needed to be rearranged. An animation that might have been playing on your computer’s display had a matrix of diodes to excite, along with all the wiring needed.

In contemporary parlance, we sometimes talk of emergent phenomena. The properties of elements that comprise the study of chemistry are an emergent phenomenon of the laws of particle physics; in turn, the laws of biochemistry emerge out of those studied properties of those elements. The ladder continues up, through the life sciences, up to the cosmic level.

One who studies physics alone, oblivious to the world of chemistry, would never have come to predict the nature of that world. And the chemist would never come to predict the world of biochemistry—just as the biochemist would not predict the existence of simple organelles. And yet each set of phenomena emerges out of the other. In each case, something new is being created and sustained through an underlying, hidden reality.

In the case of existence, however, no primordial substance was lying around from which all was formed. No pre-existing parameters or laws of nature determined or held in potential how this world must be made. This is what the tenth-century Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Saadia Gaon, meant when he described creation as “something from nothing.” Not that it has no source. It has a source—its Creator. But it has no precedent, nothing from which one can say that it emerges. The Creator could have created absolutely anything—or nothing at all.

As the prophet sums it up succinctly, “From You is everything.” From “You”—meaning the Creator who stands beyond time and space, beyond existence and non-existence, the origin of all that is. As R. Schneur Zalman was later to write, “He alone who has no precedent, nothing from which He emerged, He alone has the power to create something entirely new where nothing existed before.”

If so, it is not just a stream of energy that is required to sustain existence. It is the absoluteness of G‑d Himself.

Ingeniously, now the tables were turned: The question was no longer how a perfect Creator could be involved in His imperfect world. The question was now, how could He not be? If He is not there, how could there be anything at all?

Next installment: Infinity Unchained.