Introduction: Scholarship and Society

This is the third article in a series on the kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum.
For the first two articles click
here and here.

Kabbalists have long used the image of infinite light as a metaphor for divine revelation. But the infinite cannot be apprehended within the finite confines of human perception.1 Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad school of chassidism, advanced the idea that the essence of divinity lies beyond the impositions of this image, and can therefore be apprehended by everyone.2 In one breath he pushed the limits of divine knowledge to an unprecedentedly esoteric height and paradoxically declared that the loftiest peak is openly accessible to all.3

The intimate essence of G‑d... is openly disclosed, and directly apprehended even by children.
The intimate essence of G‑d... is openly disclosed, and directly apprehended even by children.

Esoteric elitism and accessible populism are two poles between which every society oscillates. It was once widely believed that Chassidism arose as a populist movement seeking to undermine the authority of the rabbinic elite. While scholars have conclusively demonstrated this theory to be a gross oversimplification, the tensions between these poles cannot be entirely erased from the equation. The leaders and founding members of the Chassidic movement, including Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, were all members of the scholarly elite, and by no means sought to undermine rabbinic authority. 4 By the third generation of Chassidism, the movement was spreading to include a wider swath of the social spectrum. 5

We have already seen how a scholarly disagreement amongst several Mediterranean Kabbalists in the late 1600s became a seminal point of contention between early Chassidim and their opponents. The dispute left the realm of scholarly debate and made real historical impact, not only in rabbinic circles, but for all the Jews of Eastern Europe. Moreover, the theological positions at stake had clear social implications. The non-literal interpretation of Arizal’s tzimtzum narrative, adopted by the chassidim, asserts that G‑d is immanently present throughout all existence and that the practice of mitzvot endows apparently mundane activities with the full transcendence of divine intimacy.6

R. Schneur Zalman played a prominent role in this debate,7 but he also went beyond its parameters. The image of infinite light, he realized, hints that there is something more essential than the infinite revelation of divinity. Just as light must extend from a luminous source, so the infinite revelation of divinity must extend from the more intimate essence of G‑d. This intimate essence, he declared, is openly disclosed, and directly apprehended even by children.8

The divine essence is not only imminently present everywhere but entirely transcends the categories of revelation and concealment.

Previous discussions of the tzimtzum narrative centered on the light. R. Schneur Zalman shifted the focus to the luminary, to the essence of divine being. The earlier debate centered on the questions of whether tzimtzum renders the light absent from the created realm or simply conceals its presence. R. Schneur Zalman’s insight was that the divine essence is not only imminently present everywhere but entirely transcends the categories of revelation and concealment.

Such scholarly assertions cannot be divorced from their social implications. R. Schneur Zalman sought to articulate the ineffable core of divine being, and declared that this most esoteric pinnacle is accessible to all. In doing so he raised a plethora of questions: How can the ineffable be accessible? How can the absolutely esoteric be so obviously apprehendable? How can elitism coincide with populism?

To answer these questions, and to unpack the full import of R. Schneur Zalman’s teaching, we must delve into the rich tradition of rational and mystical thought within which his ideas are framed.

Abstraction and Imagery

A striking distinction between the rationalist and mystical traditions is that rationalists tend to articulate their positions in abstract conceptual terms, while mystics or kabbalists tend to use more tangible imagery.9 Arizal’s tzimtzum narrative, beginning with the image of infinite light, is a classic example of the vivid visual analogies kabbalists employ.10

Generally “light” (ohr) is understood as a kabbalistic metaphor for what rationalist thinkers might term a “flow” of vitality from G‑d to the created realm. The word “flow” (shefa) does not specify what is flowing. It has an abstract quality that can describe a flow of water as well as it describes a flow of knowledge. Accordingly, the phrase “a flow of divine influence” remains free of any specific associations. But when the word “light” is used to represent the same concept, an image of physical light immediately springs to mind. A flow of divine influence is presumably more a spiritual phenomenon than a physical one, but when the term light is used as its signifier the visual image is difficult to shake.11

The kabbalists were not unaware of this shortcoming, but they had good reason to resort to a physical analogy. The specific associations attached to well-chosen images add layers of conceptual dimension, insight and complexity, which can faithfully accentuate the notions they are designed to represent. It was R. Schneur Zalman’s sensitivity to such visual and conceptual layers that enabled him to discover the elusive insight that is the subject of this article.

Specific associations attached to well-chosen images... can faithfully accentuate the notions they are designed to represent.

Light has several distinct properties that serve to illustrate particular contours of the mystical notion of ohr.12 Two closely related properties will serve to illustrate the point. 1) Light, unlike sound, cannot penetrate an opaque barrier. When a luminary is eclipsed its light cannot flow forth. Light is therefore described as being “attached to its source” (davuk be-mekoro).13 2) Light always remains transparent to its source, communicating something of the essential quality of the source. While there are many forms of light, we do not tar them all with the same brush. We often refer to the specific source of a given stream of light to describe its unique quality and characteristics. Light flowing from the sun is called sunlight, light cast by a fire is called firelight. Likewise we might refer to the harsh glare of electric light or to the soft glow of natural light. Accordingly, light is described as being “imitative of its source” (me’ain mekoro).14

In these ways a flow of light is sharply distinguished from other models of communication, such as the flow of knowledge from one person to another. While knowledge can sometimes reflect or be traced back to its source, this is not one of the defining features of knowledge. If person A learns about something from person B and then repeats it to person C, person C may well think that person A is the originator of the idea. Person C may also think that it came to person A from an altogether different source. Only in rare cases is person C likely to detect certain features of an idea that betray the author's identity.

Unlike light, in other words, knowledge does not depend on a direct connection with its originator to sustain its flow (it need not remain “attached to its source”), and need not betray anything about its initial source (it is not necessarily “imitative of its source”). It is because light uniquely possesses these qualities that Kabbalists used it to invoke a very specific type of divine revelation; one which transparently reflects something of G‑d’s infinite self. The term “flow” may lift the notion to a more abstract plain, but it is empty of the rich conceptual content provided by the more vivid image of light.15

Complex Models

This brings us back to Arizal’s tzimtzum narrative. Even at the first reading, the tzimtzum narrative harbors competing complexities. Arizal did not limit himself to a concise propositional statement, stated in abstract conceptual terms. To do so would be to talk himself into a box, to flatten multi-layered subtleties into one dimensional dogmas. Instead he painted a vibrant picture within which multiple perspectives are layered in coexistence.

The tzimtzum narrative is presented in three general phases: In phase one “all was filled with simple infinite light.” In phase two “this light was contracted”16 to leave “a hollow space.” In phase three “a single straight line (kav) was drawn forth from the infinite light” into the hollow space, from which “all the realms were emanated, created and made.”

The infinite light (ohr ain sof) initially signifies the absolute assertion of divine selfhood, and the utter exclusion of any concept of otherness. This “primal” or “essential” mode of divine revelation is so qualitatively potent that it cannot be reduced by quantitative degree. In order for form, finitude and otherness to be viable possibilities, it must be completely withdrawn, creating a conceptual vacuum (a “hollow space” or chalal) in which the creative process can unfold. Within this vacuum a “ray” of infinite divinity (ohr ha-kav) can be reasserted, not to the utter exclusion of otherness, but to emanate a progressively more opaque succession of divine forms and begin the process of creation.17

If the first and last stages of this narrative are articulated in abstract propositional terms we are left with two mutually exclusive claims:

G‑d is one, but G‑d is not monolithic. The utter simplicity of the one G‑d embraces an unlimited spectrum of modalities.

A) For G‑d, the very notion of creation is meaningless.

B) G‑d is the creator.

Arizal’s visual narrative provides a conceptual model within which we can perceive these contradictory claims as coexistential layers of perspective, each reflecting a different facet of the divine self.18 G‑d is one, but G‑d is not monolithic. The utter simplicity of the one G‑d embraces an unlimited spectrum of modalities. G‑d simultaneously executes the role of creator and utterly transcends that very role.

The human mind is attuned to linear thought; defining, distinguishing, analyzing and compartmentalizing each item within the wider scheme of things. It is difficult for us to imagine something to which the three dimensional bounds of time and space simply don’t apply.

Arizal did not want to flood our minds with a straightforwardly incomprehensible account of divine transcendence. Instead, he used narrative to incrementally delineate the disparate facets of singular divinity.19

Abstract conceptual terminology is excellent for clear one-dimensional statements. But one-dimensional statements do not leave much room for depth and nuance. For multi-layered conceptual models the crass contours of tangible imagery offer richer potential and greater effect.

A Significant Omission

The tzimtzum narrative uses visual, spatial and temporal terminology to describe the metaphysical chasm between the “primal” or “essential” mode of divine self-expression and the narrow facet of divinity expressed in G‑d’s relationship with the created realms. The debate that developed among scholars during the two centuries following Arizal’s passing concerned how literally this divide is to be taken. Rabbi Immanuel Ricchi and Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon, were among those who understood this to mean that G‑d’s essential self is literally removed from the created realm. Rabbi Avraham Cohen de Herrera and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, were among those who argued that the imminent presence of G‑d’s essence within the created realm is merely concealed, rather than literally absent.20

For both parties this was a metaphysical question, which had nothing to do with spatial presence and everything to do with the degree to which G‑d’s inner self is invested in the creative project. For R. Eliyahu and R. Schneur Zalman this became the defining point of contention in the broader debate between the fledgling chassidic movement and its opponents (mitnagdim). But the Vilna Gaon’s foremost disciple, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, subsequently took a less hostile position on this question, helping to defuse some of the antagonism between the two camps.21

At the same time, R. Chaim’s treatment of the tzimtzum narrative opened a new theosophical schism. The new distinction never precipitated social upheaval as the earlier one did. But from a theoretical perspective it is in some ways even more significant, reaching beyond questions of presence, revelation and concealment into the deepest mystery of divine being. The question here is not “where is G‑d?” or “how is G‑d manifest?” but “what is G‑d?”

The question here is not “where is G‑d?” or “how is G‑d manifest?” but “what is G‑d?”

In his famous work of Jewish thought and ethics, Nefesh ha-Chaim, R. Chaim wrote explicitly that “tzimtzum does not mean departure and removal, but hiddenness and concealment.”22 This clearly echoes the non-literalist reading, and departs from the stance of his mentor, R. Eliyahu. At the same time, R. Chaim’s articulation of the tzimtzum narrative extends the breadth of its application in a way that stands in direct opposition to R. Schneur Zalman’s position.

The Arizal’s description of tzimtzum as a contraction of infinite light suggests that the tzimtzum concealed the infinite revelation of divinity, and not its luminous source. The essence of divine selfhood remains utterly unconstrained even as the the assertion of divine revelation is concealed. Significantly, R. Chaim omitted any reference to the kabbalistic image of light, writing instead that “G‑d’s unified self, the divine essence that fills all worlds, is withdrawn (metzumtzam) and concealed from our grasp.”

In omitting the visual metaphor R. Chaim replaced it with a conceptual reading that flattens the concept, conflating the revelation of divine being with the essence of divine being.23 This distinction exemplifies the conceptual detail that is specifically invoked by the image of light: Light radiates from its source without embodying the source itself. When the sun shines in a room, the sunshine is there, but the sun, fortunately, is not.24

In direct contrast to R. Chaim’s assertion that “the divine essence… is withdrawn and concealed from our grasp,” R. Schneur Zalman stated that “in the luminary, which is the infinite itself [i.e. the divine essence], no tzimtzum is applicable, nor any concealment.”25

The distinction between the luminary and the light became famous as one of the most innovative tenets of Chabad thought.

This brief statement was made by R. Schneur Zalman in an oral discourse, which was among those selected for publication by his grandson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, known as the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch. This discourse, beginning with the words Patach Eliyahu, became a foundational Chabad text, and the distinction between the luminary and the light became famous as one of the most innovative tenets of Chabad thought.26

On this reading the entire tzimtzum narrative is concerned with the concealment of divine revelation (light), but the essence of divine being (the luminary) cannot be concealed.27 “On the contrary,” R. Schneur Zalman continued, “the luminary is revealed.”28 The seventh rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, reiterated the principle even more forcefully: “The luminary is revealed everywhere.”29

But what exactly does this mean? What is the significance of this distinction between the luminary and the light? And how can the luminary be revealed if its light is concealed?

Analogies and Analogs

As previously noted, every analogy has its limitations, and those limitations intensify in accordance with the analog’s abstraction.30 The metaphor of light is no different. In the same way that its rich imagery must be carefully probed so that its conceptual insight can be fully unpacked, so we must probe its limitations, carefully abstracting analog from analogy. Much of the art of abstraction lies in identifying the analogy’s deficiencies.31

Of King Solomon it is said that he articulated three thousand analogies,32 and Rabbi Schneur Zalman elsewhere interpreted this to mean that these were not three thousand distinct analogies but a single analogy abstracted and re-abstracted three thousand times. When the analogy is stripped away the newly discovered analog itself becomes an analogy through which an even deeper layer of insight is discovered.33 In R. Schneur Zalman’s understanding of the tzimtzum narrative the analogy of light does not refer to only one concept, but to a series of related concepts, one more abstract than the next.34

This reading of the tzimtzum narrative identifies three distinct forms of divine revelation and being: 1) The “ray” of infinite divinity (ohr ha-kav) that is reasserted in the vacuum (chalal) left by the tzimtzum.35 2) The infinite light that preceded the tzimtzum (ohr ain sof she-lifnei ha-tzimtzum or ohr ain sof ha-kolul beatzmuto).36 3) The luminary (ma’or), i.e. the essence of divine selfhood (ha-etzem or atzmut ohr ain sof).37

This reading of the tzimtzum narrative identifies three distinct forms of divine revelation and being... one more abstract than the next.

Of these three, only the first properly conforms to the model embodied by physical light. In our experience, light extends outwards from a luminous source into a space which would otherwise be dark. Similarly in Arizal’s image of the “ray”, a revelation of divine infinitude is drawn from G‑d’s self into the vacuum where G‑d’s revealed presence would not otherwise be manifest.

The second form of revelation, however, must be understood in more abstract terms, uncovering a radically new conception of what the term “infinite light” signifies. Arizal describes this primal form of revelation as unfolding before the tzimtzum occurs, meaning that from this perspective there is no conceptual space for anything other than G‑d. Accordingly, we cannot think of this revelation as extending outward from the luminary. It must instead unfold within the luminary itself. If the luminary in the analogy is the sun, this revelation would not be comparable to light actually radiated by the sun, but to the capacity of the sun to radiate light. If the luminary in the analogy is an intellectual luminary, this revelation would not be comparable to wisdom and knowledge actually radiated by the intellectual, but to the intellectual’s capacity to communicate wisdom and knowledge.38

In the analog this refers to a dimension of divine selfhood that transcends the active role of creator. From this perspective there can be no existence other than G‑d. Any revelation must therefore occur internally as the transcendent self-awareness of divine capacity. From this perspective all existence is nothing more than G‑d thinking thoughts about Himself.39 The effect of tzimtzum is that our experience of these thoughts is different. Tzimtzum creates an alternative and no less real perspective in which G‑d’s internal thoughts are experienced as externally expressed words, and form the opaque veil of concrete creation.40 Our experience is limited by far more than temporal and spatial constraints, but divine capacity and thought is utterly infinite, all-complete and all-pervasive.41

Essence and Assertion

While the second form of revelation unfolds internally, the third form of revelation cannot truthfully be said to unfold at all. The essence of the luminary transcends any revealed assertion of its presence. To describe it in any way is to grasp at its periphery without touching its core. Even the term luminary is misleading. Unlike fire or the sun, which are sources of light by their definitive nature, G‑d’s nature cannot be defined42 and divine existence need not be asserted in any way.43

In the normal way of thinking we conflate being (mehut) with some sort of assertion of presence (metziut). Physical objects assert their being by taking up physical space and form. Theoretical concepts assert the boundaries of their being by making specific theoretical assertions whose contours can be clearly described. If they did not assert their being, by what measure would they exist?44 Descartes was famously able to establish the existence of his own self only because that existence was asserted through thought.45

But, unlike all other forms of being, divine being is absolutely non-contingent. G‑d’s being is absolute, and is in no way enhanced by any assertion of presence. That absolute cannot be described or conceived of, because to do so would be to mistake a form of divine presence for the essence of divine being. Ultimately, every theosophical description of G‑d falls short of the ineffable essence of divine being.46 All we can say or know is that G‑d is. Absolutely.47

When concealment becomes revelatory and revelation conceals, a glimpse of something altogether transcendent is disclosed.
When concealment becomes revelatory and revelation conceals, a glimpse of something altogether transcendent is disclosed.

The divine luminary may assert its presence if desired, but if it remains unasserted the essence of divine being is in no way compromised. On the contrary, its absolute non contingency is better expressed when its utter indifference to the categories of revelation and concealment is apparent. It is not concealment that might obscure the divine essence, but revelation, for revelation risks the conflation of essential being with assertive expression. When concealment becomes revelatory and revelation conceals, a glimpse of something altogether transcendent is disclosed.48

The notion that the concealment of tzimtzum represents a disclosure of the essence is underscored in the passage cited earlier from R. Schneur Zalman’s discourse. After asserting that “in the luminary… no tzimtzum is applicable, nor any concealment,” he continues, “on the contrary, the luminary is revealed.” The suggestion here is that the tzimtzum and concealment of the light, as described by Arizal, actually brings the true transcendence of the divine essence to the fore.49 The light is the assertion of infinite capacity, which represents an articulation of a more normative representation of divinity. Tzimtzum reminds us that we should not confuse essence with assertion, and that divine being transcends any normative notion of existence.50

As a telling counterbalance to R. Schneur Zalman’s statement, “the luminary is revealed,” Chabad texts also assert that “anything essential cannot be revealed or externally asserted.”51 Meaning that any external revelation of something is by definition tangential, and cannot be a true expression of its essential core. The essence of divine being may be utterly inescapable, but it is also utterly elusive.

If the divine luminary is indeed beyond any conception or assertion, in what way can it be revealed?

Everywhere Revealed

The fifth rebbe of Chabad- Lubavitch, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, penned an extensive commentary to the original Patach Eliyahu discourse by R. Schneur Zalman. In his elucidation of the crucial statement, “the luminary is revealed,” he wrote that it endows the word “revelation” with an entirely new and different sense:

There is a distinction between the concept of revelation applied to light and between the concept of revelation applied to the luminary. The very purpose of light is revelation, for the entire function of light is that it is drawn and revealed from the luminary. Accordingly, the purpose of revelation in this context is that it should be grasped and comprehended… that it should provide internal illumination in a form that the recipient can know and sense, knowing how and what it is…52

In the normal sense, in other words, revelation refers to something becoming conceptually and tangibly comprehensible. But the essence of being, symbolized by the luminary, defies any specifiable assertion or description of being. It simply cannot be “revealed” in the normal sense of the word. Here R. Shalom DovBer invokes the dictum that “anything essential cannot be revealed.” In this context, he emphasizes, lack of revelation cannot be equated with concealment. The term concealment itself can only accurately be applied to something that might be revealed, and which just happens to be concealed for some technical reason. But the very essence of being is a self-contained intimacy that stands beyond the dialectic of revelation and concealment.53

G‑d is not a matter of perspective, but the ground of all perspective.

Accordingly, R. Shalom DovBer concludes, “the concept of revelation as applied to the luminary is not that it should become graspable and comprehensible, so that one can know what it is… Rather the concept of revelation here is that the essence is encountered and revealed as it transcends any sort of revelation and any sort of concealment.”

The different modes and degrees of divine revelation, whether transcendent or immanent, transparent or opaque, each represent different perspectives on the nature of reality. Theological constructions about infinitude and capacity describe the way G‑d’s presence is asserted; the way G‑d does or does not relate to man and the world. But G‑d is not a theological construction. G‑d is. G‑d is not a matter of perspective, but the ground of all perspective.

On this reading, tzimtzum strips away the external trappings of revelation to disclose a raw confrontation with the very essence of being.54

R. Schneur Zalman continues to say that the unadorned religious conviction of children and unlearned folk derives from their direct apprehension of G‑d’s essence. So absolute is divine being that even the ignorant sense its essentiality. “Even children know that G‑d is present, though they have no understanding or grasp of how G‑d is manifest or what G‑d is.” This is not to be considered as superficial belief, but rather as unshakable knowledge; the kind of knowledge gained by the sight of one’s very own eyes. The essence of divine being is everywhere revealed.55

Apprehending the Unknowable

The ignorant knowledge of divine essentiality typified by childish faith is not to be dismissed. On the contrary, it is to be held up as an ideal of pure perception unadulterated by the obscurities of human cleverness.56 It would not be an overstatement to say that all of Chabad thought is directed towards the rediscovery of such childlike clarity. The inherent logic of Chabad thought, Elliot Wolfson has discerningly written, is “a way of thinking that begets an annihilation of thinking, an aporetic state of learned ignorance.”57

In the definitive essay, Inyaanah Shel Torat Ha-chassidut, the seventh Rebbe wrote that “the essential core of Chassidism” is the manifestation of a “new revelation” drawn from “the infinite that is found in the beginning that cannot be known.” The function of Chassidism, he went on to demonstrate, is to draw that essential ignorance into every aspect of Torah study and mitzvah observance, which together encompass all of Jewish life.58

A related talk by R. Shalom DovBer showcases how Chabad Chassidism seeks to strip away all the layers of conception that impede our apprehension of G‑d’s true self. The relationship cultivated through Torah study and mitzvah observance, he insisted, reaches to the very essence of divine being. The perception that it is in any way peripheral is erroneous. A key passage reflects the contradictory nature of such a relationship:

We know no one at all. We know only the essence. From Him Himself we were commanded regarding the concept of mitzvot. But what the essence is we do not know.59

It would not be an overstatement to say that all of Chabad thought is directed towards the rediscovery of childlike clarity.

R. Shalom DovBer continues with an elaboration of “the wise man’s aphorism” cited in the 15th century work Sefer ha-Ikkarim, regarding the essence of divine being: “If I would know him I would be him.”60 In its original context this is understood as a clever declaration of divine unknowability. But R. Shalom DovBer takes a more complex approach, simultaneously preserving a more literal reading and extracting paradoxical insight into the essential nature of divine being.61

Knowledge, explains R. Shalom DovBer, is a bridge that breaks down the divide between the knowing subject and the known object. “Through knowledge one becomes connected to the object and united with the object.” This is true of any item of knowledge. But there is a distinction between the degree of unity achieved through “revealed” knowledge and that achieved through “essential” knowledge. Revealed knowledge is the external transfer of quantifiable information. Such information might narrow the gap between the knower and the known, even creating an intimate bond between them. But no bond, however intimate, can be confused with the utter dissolution of boundaries achieved through knowledge of the divine essence, the essential core of all being.

The inherent disconnect between knower and known, wrote R Shalom DovBer, is best demonstrated by the human capacity for hypocrisy. Knowing something does not mean to be that thing. A mathematician is not a triangle, and a doctor may smoke cigarettes. Certain ethical principles demand particular character traits and behaviors, such as compassion, honesty and charity. But knowledge of these principles does not automatically result in the practical embodiment of those character traits and behaviors in the person of the knower. Nor does knowledge of Torah and the divine will dictate that your character and behavior will be transformed accordingly.

Such hypocrisy is possible because we live in a differentiated realm, physically, conceptually and psychologically; in a realm where knowledge – however deeply assimilated – will always remain an external imposition on the subjective sense of self. But when you arrive at the undifferentiated essence of all being, the distance between the knower and the known must inevitably collapse. In R. shalom DovBer’s words:

Even with intimate conceptual knowledge, through knowing it one does not become it, and it is possible that one might be utterly different. So it is also regarding revelations of divinity. But regarding the essence of divinity, if one could conceivably know the essence one would actually become the essence.62

Becoming Being

R. Shalom DovBer provides two reasons why knowledge of the essence makes the knower synonymous with the essence. The simple explanation is that assimilation of such transcendent knowledge would so remarkably refine one’s powers of conception that one’s entire character would be equivalently transformed. But the deeper explanation discloses the open secret of the intimate essence:

The intimate essence of divinity contains all within itself. All is contained within the intimate essence of divinity. There is no otherness. There are no dichotomies of subject and object, revelation and concealment, immanence and transcendence. Only the revealed assertion of divine presence contains an infinite spectrum of differing perspectives, providing the seed for externality and otherness. But at the very core of being all perspectives are one, an endless iteration of essentiality. Here the distance that allows for hypocrisy dissolves.

The knower’s perception of subjective independence is no more than a peripheral construct of the divine self. The purpose of this construct is that man should reach beyond its façade and penetrate its essence. To know the essence is to realize the dissolution of all distinction, including the distinction between the knower and that which is known.

The essence in fact contrived that the knower should be outside of the essence in order that he should bestir himself somewhat. Accordingly when he approaches knowledge of the essence, the essence absorbs him within: ‘It was in fact I who made you outside of my essence. Therefore when you turn inward to know the essence, I absorb you within. If you know me, you are me. You are not yours, you are mine.’ This is [the intimation of] ‘If I would know him I would be him.’63

* * *

"Every chassid who toils in the study of Chassidism and in prayerful service in the heart… senses the aspect of being him that derives from the soul knowing him.”
"Every chassid who toils in the study of Chassidism and in prayerful service in the heart… senses the aspect of being him that derives from the soul knowing him.”

The implication that such knowledge is actually attainable is crystallized in a talk by R. Shalom DovBer’s son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch. In this talk R. Yosef Yitzchak recalled a series of discussions between senior chassidim concerning the nature of Chassidic thought, with crucial input from his father.

The first discussion occurred in the summer of 1893, when senior chassidim from across Russia gathered in Lubavitch to celebrate R. Yosef Yitzchak’s bar mitzvah. The conversation turned to the question of what distinguishes Chassidism from other streams of Jewish thought, especially the mystically inclined tradition of Kabbalah, and the philosophically inclined tradition of Hakirah:

Rabbi Gershon Dov [from the town of Pahar, near Chernigov, a follower of the Tzemach Tzedek and a disciple of Rabbi Hillel of Paritch] offered his opinion that Kabbalistic teachings label each divine attribute and formation by name, Philosophical teachings disclose negative knowledge of G‑d [via negativa] as expressed in the saying ‘If I would know him I would be him,’ and Chassidic teachings disclose the abstract knowledge, ‘I know him, I become him’ as apprehended in the divine soul. Through toil of the soul and toil of the flesh in prayerful service in one’s heart this comes fully within one’s grasp. Then one senses that knowing him is being him.64

The second discussion occurred in 1911, when R. Yosef Yitzchak shared his transcript of the earlier discussion with Rabbi Yaakov Mordechai Bezpalov of Poltava, and with his father, Rabbi Shalom DovBer:

R. Yaakov Mordechai opined, “The opinion of the above mentioned R. Gershon Dov regarding the teachings of Chassidism applied only and exclusively to people of lofty stature, people of such rare intellectual and emotional ability as he [R. Gershon Dov] himself had. But not for regular people like us” – he said of himself.

My father the Rebbe said, “It is not as you say. Every chassid who toils in the study of Chassidism and in prayerful service in the heart… when one has both – one studies and one prays – every person assimilates and senses the aspect of being him that derives from the soul knowing him.”65

Chabad Chassidism, R. Shalom DovBer asserted, provides a theoretical and methodological path via which everyone can attain this unique type of knowing, this sense of dissolution, of becoming absorbed and submerged within the essence of divine being.66 The luminary is revealed everywhere, the luminary can be apprehended by everyone.67