Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), the so-called Alter Rebbe, or founding teacher of the Chabad movement, was once asked to explain to his students how he prays. He is said to have responded, “I pray with the table and with the chairs.” When I first heard this story many years ago, I assumed he meant merely to say that he prayed with great intensity, so that the tables and chairs shook with his fervor. Anyone who has seen Orthodox Jews engrossed in speaking to their Creator while bowing and shaking in constant motion—shuckling, as it is sometimes known in English—will know what I had in mind. I was more wrong than right though, because I underestimated the central importance of tables and chairs and the whole world of mundane materiality to Hasidic prayer. Far from being merely a backdrop or a disturbance to the pursuit of pure spirituality, it is precisely the material world that serves as the setting and telos of Hasidic prayer, whose ultimate agenda is to render—or better, to reveal—this mundane space we inhabit as a fitting habitation for divinity, or what they call dirah ba-tachtonim, “a home in the nether regions.” But what does all this have to do with tables and chairs?

The Chabad movement began to take hold in the Jewish communities of White Russia and Lithuania more than two hundred years ago and has developed today into an important global network of “emissaries” and spiritual entrepreneurs devoted to the promotion of Hasidic ideals and practice in every conceivable format and context. Active contemplation of paradoxes like the coincidence of divine immanence and transcendence . . . alone could offer lasting transformation of human affect . . . practice and existential condition.In its origins though, the movement was premised on intensive forms of contemplative study and prayer designed to transform human beings by focusing not on the emotions like other Hasidic groups, but on the intellect. The term Chabad itself is a Hebrew acronym for “wisdom, understanding, knowledge,” which represent the cognitive faculties targeted by these practices. Interesting comparisons with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have recently been advanced. Active contemplation of paradoxes like the coincidence of divine immanence and transcendence helped to fill the mind of the worshipper with divine light, which alone could offer lasting transformation of human affect and ultimately, it was to be hoped, of human practice and existential condition as well.

Chabad contemplative practices were meant to engender a sense of bittul or self-abnegation, a marvelously labile term that stands for a whole host of different spiritual, moral, and cognitive conditions. One of its most basic meanings is that the world and all existence comes to seem (to the mind and even to the senses and feelings) “as if it were naught” (ke’lo hashiv) when viewed through the prism of contemplation upon the greatness of the divine. The “as if” is important here, because Chabad teachers throughout the generations have been careful to deny a view that is sometimes attributed to various forms of Eastern mysticism which holds that the world is an illusion (maya). This, no Orthodox Jew can easily maintain, because the whole sweep of Jewish religious tradition starting with the Bible and through all the later teachings is that the world created by G‑d is real, that human responsibility for good or for evil is far from illusory, and that divine prerogatives in history must be fulfilled. “G‑d forbid,” exclaimed the third hereditary leader of Chabad, known as Zemach Zedek (1789–1866), “that we should say the world is not real!” And yet, nearly every page of classical teaching in the Chabad school insists that the world is “completely nullified” before the great light of G‑d, “like the light of a candle extinguished in the light of the sun.” This is the apparent paradox of materiality which is both real and not real, and it is this dilemma which is addressed through the delicate praxis of contemplative prayer.

The Lurianic mystery of zimzum, the divine “contraction” that makes space for the phenomenal world, is by now well-known. Modern thinkers like Edmund Jabes, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas have each appropriated this sixteenth-century Kabbalistic imagery for their own ethical and interpretive projects. Levinas’ startling adaptation of the zimzum metaphor for interpersonal relations was most clearly anticipated in an essay by by the fifth Chabad Rebbe, known as the Rebbe Rashab.For example, Levinas arranges his whole ethical phenomenology around the demand to make space for the Other, giving to him or to her, as it were, a chance to breathe and a space to inhabit, though it be at one’s own expense. Levinas may go out of his way to identify himself with the nineteenth-century opponents of the Hasidim in his famous essay on “Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin” (for reasons that may become clear in a moment), but his startling adaptation of the zimzum metaphor for interpersonal relations was most clearly anticipated in an essay by by the fifth Chabad Rebbe, known as the Rebbe Rashab (1860–1920), who desribes human zimzum at length as an act of ethical imitatio Dei (see Kuntres He-Chaltzu). Levinas may well have been aware of the essay (we know that he studied some early Chabad literature), but I believe he would have shied away from the Chabad formulation precisely because of its insistence on contemplative practices designed to show zimzum to be merely a metaphor.

Correct interpretation of zimzum was an important feature of the debates that distinguished early Hasidim from their opponents. Though there is some debate on this point, the standard account holds that the great and fierce opponent of the Hasidism, R. Elijah of Vilna, took the idea of zimzum in its literal sense (zimzum ke-peshuto), meaning that G‑d evacuated, as it were, a space for creation. This would be a comfortable position for someone like Levinas not just because of his Lithuanian Jewish origins, but also because it implies that the analogous moral sacrifice “for the other” is real and irreducible. Variations on the zimzum ke-peshuto argument were made by various writers in what they took to be the defense of normative distinctions between right and wrong, pure and impure, that they sensed might be compromised by the idea of a G‑d whose presence resides everywehere without distinction, in places sacred as well as very profane. Even Levinas’ hero, R. Hayyim of Volozhin, who did not accept the simple reading of zimzum, thought that one should act as if it were literally true so as to avoid the potential for antinomianism.

Not so for Chabad. Like other Hasidim, Chabad opted for the radical solution that zimzum itself is the illusion grounded in human perceptual limitations but Bittul is the cognitive-perceptual process whereby we train ourselves to see behind the veil. The world is real, but not in the way that we thought it was before.that in fact nothing ever changed—the divine light before creation and after creation are identical, as is the immanence of the divine glory, except that the world conceals this glory even as it also stands witness to it. The parallel between this position and the psychological or perceptual problem of bittul (self-annihilation) should now be perfectly clear: when we reflect upon the divine light we realize cognitively and perceptually that we “are as naught,” but we also come to recognize that our “naught” is included in (rather than excluded by) unmediated divinity. Bittul is the cognitive-perceptual process whereby we train ourselves to see behind the veil. The world is real, but not in the way that we thought it was before. How is this accomplished?

Here we return to the importance of prayer as a transformative praxis. Contemplative prayer is a complex ritual system in Chabad, corresponding to many different spiritual and cognitive levels of attainment. On the simplest level, contemplating the greatness of God engenders love and fear and a pervasive sense of bittul ha-yesh (nullification of the coarse material aspect of the human personality, the part that craves physical satisfaction and acts for itself, disobeying the divine will). The contemplative person continues to experience his or her separate existence but attains a great clarity and transparency to the divine will over time. One is no longer held in thrall to physical fears or desires and is actively willing to give oneself, one’s very life (mesirut nefesh), for the sake of not being separated from G‑d.

For early Chabad, which developed at the same time and in direct response to modernizing trends among the Jews of Europe, this was an important political as well as religious message, because it provided a practical means In direct response to modernizing trends among the Jews of Europe . . . Chabad provided a practical means of combating the colonization of Jewish religious habitus by secularized perceptual structures.of combating the colonization of Jewish religious habitus by secularized perceptual structures—the idea that religious motives for example, even where they are respected, should be treated as no more compelling than other sorts of human motives and instinctual reactions, like the hunger for food, for economic advancement, or for political freedom. Contemplation on this level reformulates everything, putting the consciousness of G‑d and the divine will at the center of one’s perceptual schemas and at the heart of one’s motivational framework, such that even martyrdom might appear as but a trifling thing compared to the awesome intensity of divine intimacy. Many religious movements would have been content with having achieved this level of religious feeling.

Chabad sources insist however (and I am simplifying a great deal) that there are deeper levels of contemplation available to adepts, and that these do more than simply ensure the primacy of religious motivation over other forces but also allow a glimpse of the truth obscured by zimzum—the truth that the world itself and all that is in it “is considered as naught before Thee.” This is called bittul ba-metziut, or “annihilation within existence.” In this reality, every existent being and thing must be perceived (and experienced!) as ultimately contingent upon the divine vitality that creates and gives life to it, not once and for all, as in a simplistic reading of the Genesis story, but constantly and at all times. Like the phenomenological epoché, which brackets the “natural attitude” of the world as given to sense experience, contemplative prayer brackets the untrained perspective by which our world appears as “really real” and firmly existent, and reveals instead the divine light and contingency underlying all things. One does not see merely a “table” or “chairs,” nor does one come to see them as illusory and false, but one learns to perceive the divine vitality that is in them and that constitutes their true reality. To pray with the tables and with the chairs means, at least in part, to take one’s cue from materiality but to work backwards to its divine source and vitality, to learn to truly see this vitality where once there was only a chair or a table, and then to reveal, to the extent one is able, the truth that zimzum—divine absence—is itself the illusion that reveals materiality, and that alles is G‑tt (“all is G‑d”).

Photo: Shlomo Vishinsky | Courtesy Zev Markowitz / <a href="/5234467" target="_blank">Chai Art Gallery</a>
Photo: Shlomo Vishinsky | Courtesy Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery

The meaning of dirah ba-tachtonim, that the world should be revealed as a fitting habitation for divinity, is thus an act of uncovering as much as it is one of tikkun (repair). The tikkun is in fact the uncovering. This has been explicit or implicit to Chabad teaching since the beginning, but it received unprecedented and explicit emphasis from the seventh (and last) Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994) of New York, who over the last generation shepherded the transformation of post-Holocaust Chabad into a global movement. As R. Schneerson announced in his inaugural address to his Hasidim in 1951 and never tired of repeating in many ways over the years, he believed that the “generation of the seventh” (the seventh generation since the founding of Chabad by R. Schneur Zalman) was destined to be the generation of redemption, the generation in which the fitting habitation of this world for G‑d would finally be made plain. While the relationship between this perceptual transformation and more traditional notions of Jewish redemption remain to be made clear in subsequent posts, the Rebbe emphasized in many settings over the years that the final telos of history is the revelation of the divine essence (atzmus) as G‑d is in G‑dself in plain sight upon the phenomenal world, something we do not yet have language to describe. This is not, in the final analysis, the flight from materiality or its suppression (as in much of classical Jewish pietism), but the emergence of the material as the very throne and expression of divine glory. This is, moreover, the revelation of a truth already present, pulsing just beneath the façade of our secular existence. If Chabad has sometimes chafed against narrow doctrines of separation that are used to push religion out of the public sphere in the United States and elsewhere, this needs to be understood as fundamental to Chabad’s overall project. The sacred and the profane as human categories must both dissolve like the light of a candle in the noonday glare.

It is the eve of Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem as I write these words. There is a pensiveness and excitement in the air very different from that which accompanies our secular “New Year’s Day.” It is Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgment,Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the other liturgical days of this season each stand as particular moments in a broad process of self-transformation, self-annihilation, and renewal and Yom Ha-Zikaron, the Day of Memory. In the earliest Chabad sources, it is a day for the contemplation of the ultimate, paradoxical unity of the “light that fills creation” (divine sovereignty, immanence) and “the light that surrounds creation” (infinitude, transcendence). The day does not stand alone but is part of a broad ritual framework in which Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the other liturgical days of this season each stand as particular moments in a broad process of self-transformation, self-annihilation, and renewal. Many people will spend many hours in synagogues hoping for at least a few moments of transcendence and clarity which may or may not ever come. In later posts in this ocasional series on the materiality of prayer, I hope to describe my ethnography of prayer in the lives of contemporary Chabad practitioners and flesh out more of what is at stake for them in this life they have chosen. For now though, it is enough to emphasize that the contemplative practice described in Chabad teachings ensures that those who engage in it will not be praying alone. If you listen closely you can hear the tables and the chairs praying, too.

This article first appeared in Reverberations: New Directions in the Study of Prayer, a SSRC forum, and is republished here with permission.