A current exhibition at the central Chabad library in New York showcases the prolific literary output of the third rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1789-1866, popularly known by the title of his published responsa on Jewish law, Tzemach Tzedek).1 A tradition has been transmitted that when he first began writing on topics of Chassidic thought and Jewish law, his grandfather, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), advised him: “the pen shall be your friend”—applying a play on the etymological equivalence between the Hebrew words for “pen” and “acquire” (קנה) to the Talmudic dictum “acquire yourself a friend.”2 Nearly 100 manuscript volumes in R. Menachem Mendel’s hand are held by the library, dating from as early as 1806. But many more manuscripts, transcribed over a lifetime, were lost in two fires that occurred in Lubavitch, and in the later upheavals of the two world wars.3 As published, these writings fill more than 50 volumes.4

Here it is worth citing the testimony of the early Chabad historian, R. Chaim Meir Hillman, in his authoritative Beit Rebbi, published in 1902:

In his handwriting there are many thousands of pages, including his own notes transcribing the words of his honored grandfather, and other people's notes that he refined, clarified, added glosses to and commented extensively on. Also very many of his own discourses… He wrote on the entire Tanach… and also on Aggadic and Midrashic literature… He also wrote many responsa [adjudicating practical questions of Jewish law], novel insights and explanations on the six orders of the Mishnah and Talmud, on the words of early rabbinic authorities, with great discussion that is relevant to practical law… But many of his writings were also burnt in the great fire in Lubavitch in 1858…5

The notion of penmanship as friendship might seem a poetic metaphor for the solace that writing can provide. But in the context of scholarship, penmanship provides friendship of a different kind. To write is to impose coherent articulation on abstract ideas, to force them from subjective ether into concretely scrutable form, to clearly delineate distinctions between concepts so that they can be weighed and measured against one another. To write is to engage in an intellectual interface where the pen becomes your most intimate critic; a trusted confidant with whom you share the burden of scholarship; a friend who challenges you to refine each concept, and to acknowledge ambiguity where you might otherwise ignore it.6

For many writers the pen is simply a tool to transcribe the subjective stream of consciousness, to communicate it and perpetuate it. But for R. Menachem Mendel the pen was a friend. His work—as transcriber, editor, publisher, commentator, and writer—is often recognizable as a distinctly deliberative endeavor, a medium for the careful study of his grandfather’s teachings; for the working through, integration, contextualization and further development of Chassidic ideas and Kabbalistic concepts. Another tradition indicates that the distinctive characteristics of R. Menachem Mendel’s penmanship already emerged in the lifetime of R. Schneur Zalman, who commented: “My brother Yehudah Leib writes as I speak, my son DovBer writes as I mean, and my grandson Mendel writes as I speak and as I mean.”7

R. Menachem Mendel himself prized R. Yehudah Leib’s transcripts for their precise rendering of R. Schneur Zalman’s spoken word, and used them as the foundation of the two most influential compendia of the latter’s discourses, Torah Or and Likutei Torah.8 By contrast, R. DovBer freely expanded on his father’s teachings, developing an extensively explanatory style, and often employing distinctly philosophical terminology, departing from R. Schneur Zalman’s words in order to more fully expound and extend his ideas.9

What distinguished R. Menachem Mendel’s method was his concern to contextualize, explain, and further develop his grandfather’s teachings without losing the original texture of their formulation.10 This approach is manifest in a variety of methodological fashions, and is perhaps most evident in Likutei Torah, in which he enhanced R. Schneur Zalman’s discourses in two important ways: Firstly, and less apparently, by the interpolation of relevant passages from elsewhere in the latter’s oeuvre.11 Secondly, by the interpolation of commentary glosses that are marked by parentheses, and often run beyond the length of a column.12

It might be suggested that while R. DovBer’s engagement with R. Schneur Zalman’s teachings was chiefly shaped through oral discourse and exposition, R. Menachem Mendel’s approach was more fundamentally characterized by the textual, editorial, and scriptural dimension.13 R. DovBer was primarily interested in articulating the conceptual breadth and depth of these teachings. R. Menachem Mendel was primarily interested in clarifying the significance of specific texts, and exposing the insights to be gained through intertextual study and analysis.14 In addition to his own writing, he devoted himself to the study, curation, and publication of existing transcripts of R. Schneur Zalman’s teachings, and constantly explored the relationship of variant texts to one another, and to the wider Jewish canon.15 He especially engaged with Midrash, Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah, but also with classical Jewish thinkers like Maimonides, Nachmanides, Abarbanel and Maharal.16

* * *


Unconscious Knowledge and the Concealed Presence of G‑d

Given the textual character of R. Menachem Mendel’s approach it seems fitting to explore an example in which text is not only the medium for intellectual work, but also the central topic of discussion. In a discourse published in Likutei Torah, titled Lehavin Mah Shekatuv Be’otzrot Chaim, R. Schneur Zalman takes up the different ways in which a scholar engages with a text as an analogy for the ways in which divine infinitude fills the cosmos. The scholar studies a Talmudic tractate, committing “all the content, arguments and conceptions in it” to memory. This allows for the identification of two forms of knowledge—“revealed” or conscious knowledge, and “concealed” or unconscious knowledge—which respectively illustrate two distinct forms of divine presence within the creative process.17

When the scholar “thinks and speaks of this knowledge it is overtly revealed in his thought and speech. But while studying another tractate… or sitting idle, he does not think of the content of that first tractate that he has mastered… Nevertheless it is impossible to say that it [his knowledge of this tractate] is not at all present in his intellect, for immediately when he will turn and desire to speak of it, he will think and speak of it comprehensively… This being the case, we must conclude that even when not thinking of it, it yet remains completely present in his intellect.”18

The fact that the scholar’s knowledge is not overtly revealed in thought and speech does not mean that it has been forgotten. The knowledge is retained covertly within the unconscious memory of the mind, and can be consciously engaged with and verbally articulated at will. To put it in philosophical terms, an epistemological deficit does not entail an ontological one. R. Schneur Zalman’s position is that the same applies to G‑d. Though not overtly revealed within the finite forms of the created realm, divine infinitude covertly pervades all reality. This reflects R. Schneur Zalman’s classical reinterpretation of the Lurianic description of the contraction (tzimtzum) and removal (siluk) of divine infinitude (or ain sof, lit. infinite light) at the onset of creation.19 The analogy of the scholar is specifically invoked to illustrate his argument that, “this tzimtzum is not [to be understood] in its literal sense.” Tzimtzum does not represent a transition from presence to absence, but rather a transition from revelation to concealment.20

In this analogy the contours of divine revelation are equated with the “letters” through which the scholar’s knowledge is given specific expression. This conception of “letters” goes beyond an alphabetic text transcribed on a page and studied. “Letters” refers to all the linguistic and symbolic forms of human expression, to the varied contours that give shape and coherence to our conscious thoughts, and that allow us to articulate them verbally.21 In contrast, R. Schneur Zalman describes the scholar’s concealed or unconscious knowledge as “intellect as it is in-itself, transcending revelation in letters… even transcending letters of thought…” This distinction—between conscious revelation in letters, and the unconscious presence of essential knowledge—provides a vivid illustration for R. Schneur Zalman’s conception of tzimtzum. In his own words: “Similarly, we may understand the concept of the tzimtzum that occurred in the infinite assertion of divine presence (or ain sof)… It departed from being revealed in letters, but yet remains [present] as it was, only that it is [now] encompassed within its source.”22

A close reading of this passage reveals a significant nuance. Just as the unconscious knowledge of the scholar is described as a more transcendent, ideal form of intellect, “intellect as it is in-itself,” so the covert presence of divine infinitude within creation is “encompassed within its source,” i.e. within the transcendent essence of G‑d. On the other hand, it is emphasized that the infinite assertion of divine presence “remains as it was,” immanently invested throughout the concealing contours of the created realm.

Despite the expansive explanatory style of the discourse, this twofold insight is delivered with cryptic brevity. And despite the paradox it opens, it may have gone unnoticed had not R. Menachem Mendel remarked on it in a gloss. The latter points first to another discourse where R. Schneur Zalman more comprehensively expands on the creative act of tzimtzum as a move from divine revelation to divine essentiality. Then R. Menachem Mendel moves to the use of the analogy of “letters” in his grandfather’s foundational work, Likutei Amarim - Tanya to explain why creation does not impinge on the exclusive singularity of divine being. Placing it in illuminating interface with the previous discussion, he uncovers the richly dialectical conception that this analogy embodies. It is to R. Menachem Mendel’s commentary gloss that we now turn.23

Acrylic on Stretched Canvas
Acrylic on Stretched Canvas
Alyse Radenovic, "Genesis 2:1-3 Silver & Rainbow"

* * *

The Light, the Luminary, and the Internalization of Text

R. Menachem Mendel begins by referencing Patach Eliyahu, a discourse in Torah Or. There R. Schneur Zalman explains that the infinite light (or ain sof)—upon which all discussions of tzimtzum focus—extends from the primordial luminary, the essence of G‑d. Elsewhere this point is illustrated with the image of sunlight that extends from the globe of the sun. The essence of G‑d is accordingly described as transcending any assertion of divine revelation, and consequently as transcending the concealment of tzimtzum. While the light is contracted and concealed, the unmasked ineffability of the divine essence uninhibitedly pervades all existence. Based on this principle R. Schneur Zalman further develops the non-literal understanding of tzimtzum, reframing the concealment of the light as the internalization of the light within the luminary. The overt assertion of divine infinitude is not removed, nor simply concealed, but internalized within the omnipresent ineffability of G‑d’s essential self.24

In its traditional understanding, tzimtzum is a way of moving beyond G‑d’s essential self into the realm of creation, where finite forms emerge, and with them the illusion of autonomy. But on R. Schneur Zalman’s reading this externalizing move towards otherness is itself an internalizing move into the essential intimacy of divine selfhood. It is from the transcendent core of divine being, which is neither enhanced by revelation nor inhibited by concealment, that the possibility of otherness emerges.

This, R. Menachem Mendel points out, is the paradoxical insight that R. Schneur Zalman so fleetingly eludes to in Lehavin Mah Shekatuv Be’otzrot Chaim: “the or ain sof… departs from shining within the letters, but remains as it was, only that it is [now encompassed] within its source…” Divine infinitude is no longer revealed in the extraneous guise of letters, but is encompassed within the essential source whose presence is not constrained by revelation or concealment. The concealing act of tzimtzum actually brings the inexpressible essence of G‑d to the fore.25

R. Menachem Mendel’s intention here is not simply to amplify a point that might otherwise have been missed. The intention is rather to exploit the interface of these two texts in order to illuminate a third. The next step in this process is to show that Patach Eliyahu’s internalizing conception of tzimtzum is also reflected in Lehavin Mah Shekatuv Be’otzrot Chaim’s analogy of the scholar’s concealed knowledge of a text. Based on this insight we can then reread the Tanya’s application of a similar analogy through a conceptual lens that is at once sharper and more complex.

After succinctly encapsulating the point made in Patach Eliyahu—“the meaning of tzimtzum is that light becomes encompassed within the luminary”—R. Menachem Mendel continues to explain its implications for “the significance of the present analogy.” We have already seen that R. Schneur Zalman described the scholar’s concealed or unconscious knowledge as “intellect as it is in itself, transcending revelation in letters… even transcending letters of thought…” R. Menachem Mendel adds that “the relationship between the essential [concealed] capacity of intellection and the revealed conception… is like [the relationship between] the luminary and the light [as described in Patach Eliyahu].” This means that just as tzimtzum entails the internalization of the light within the luminary, so all the scholar’s revealed understanding of this Talmudic tractate are completely internalized, committed to memory, and encompassed with the psychic essence of intellection. When the scholar studies a different topic, or sits idle, the previously mastered knowledge is not simply present; it is now more intimately bound with the inner self than when consciously formulated and externally expressed.26

Even more significant for his argument is R. Menachem Mendel’s emphasis that this process of internalization does not leave the conscious formulations of knowledge behind. Instead “the letters”—the finite contours through which understanding is experienced, symbolically characterized, and communicated—are also absorbed and effaced within the psychic essence of intellection: “The essential capacity of intellect… is the root of intellection, and the intellect drawn from it… is revelation… vested in letters. And when it is encompassed in its source in the aspect of concealment it is like the encompassment of light in the luminary, and the letters too are effaced there…” Implicitly, the same applies in the analog. The entire process of creation is entirely effaced within the all-encompassing intimacy of divine essentiality.27

“From this,” R. Menachem Mendel continues, “we can understand the significant depth of the analogy mentioned in Sefer Shel Beinonim (Tanya), chapter 33, to illustrate the unity of G‑d: ‘like the effacement of letters of speech and thought in their source and root, the being and essence of the soul’ …and it is explained there in chapters 20 and 21.” He leaves it for us to unpack the significance of his insight.

* * *

Speech, Externalization, and Divine Singularity

In R. Schneur Zalman’s teachings divine unity plays a central role. The second part of Tanya is titled The Gate of Unity and Faith, and is dedicated to a systematic explanation of the philosophical basis for the fundamental belief that G‑d is not only the ground of all being, but the only true being.28 In the first part of Tanya, which R. Menachem Mendel refers to here, this belief is enshrined as the basis of a contemplative practice that can inspire a person to rise above mundane concerns and commit themselves entirely to the service of G‑d.29

The success of this contemplative practice depends on a clear understanding of the utter singularity of divine being. But our experience of the physical realm as something other than G‑d, as something that G‑d created, stands as a compelling obstacle to the achievement of such clarity.

To square our experience of creation with the utter singularity of divine being, R. Schneur Zalman deploys the analogy of “letters,” analyzing the psychological process of linguistic formulation and verbal expression as an illustration of the divine process of creation.30 The similarity between human speech and divine creation is that both are processes of revelation and externalization: “Just as the lower speech of man reveals to the listeners that which was hidden and concealed in thought, so with the infinite; the emanation from the divine, from concealment to revelation, in order to create worlds and vivify them, is referred to as speech.”31

The purpose of this comparison is firstly to demonstrate the insignificance of creation relative to the all-encompassing transcendence of G‑d, and secondly to illustrate how creation is utterly effaced within the all-encompassing singularity of divine being.

The first point is explained in chapter 20:

When a person speaks one word, this speech alone is literally as nothing, even relative to the soul’s general capacity of speech… which can potentially speak words without limitation and end… How much more so [is it as nothing] relative to the soul’s inner expression, that is, thought… And nothing need be said [of the insignificance of speech] relative to the essence and being of the soul…32

The key word in this passage is “relative.” The analogy of a single spoken word relative to the essence and being of the soul describes the relative insignificance of created reality in comparison to the grandeur of divine infinitude and transcendence. But in chapter 21, R. Schneur Zalman transforms this paradigm by drawing a distinction between the analogy and the analogue. The singularity of divine being emerges not as a relative concept but as an absolute, utterly encompassing all reality, utterly effacing all autonomy:

The characteristics of G‑d are not like those of flesh and blood. When a person speaks, the words in his mouth feel and appear as something autonomous, separated from its root… the soul itself. But the word of G‑d is not separated from Him, for there is nothing outside of Him, and no place empty of Him… G‑d’s speech and thought are, as it were, united with Him to the ultimate degree of unity, analogous to the speech and thought of a person when they are yet within his capacity of conception and intellection… Exactly so, by way of analogy, is the speech and thought of G‑d united to the ultimate degree of unity with His being and essence, even after his speech has transitioned into actuality in the creation of worlds… Accordingly, before Him they are literally regarded as nothing.33

Human speech is a real process of externalization, but the divine process of creation only simulates externalization, because ultimately there can be nothing external to G‑d. Accordingly, we need to conceive of the creative word of G‑d as being more analogous to human thought, which is contained within the self, than to human speech, which is externalized and extended into the realm of otherness.

* * *

Intertextuality, the Cosmos, and Divine Introspection

As we have already noted, the purpose of this discussion is to provide the Tanya’s readership with a contemplative strategy to invoke an awareness of the exclusive singularity of divine existence, which will in turn inspire a personal commitment to preserve the integrity of divine unity through Torah study and mitzvah observance. The focus here, in other words, is more practical than theoretical. One might be forgiven, therefore, for seeing R. Schneur Zalman’s analogy of “letters” as nothing more than an illustrative device. But in contextualizing the discussion in the Tanya with the texts in Likutei Torah and Torah Or described above, R. Menachem Mendel exposes the conceptual depth veiled within this analogy.

Taken on its own terms, R. Schneur Zalman’s conclusion in Tanya does not seem to displace the central conception of tzimtzum as a process of externalization, as described above. It merely reframes this externalizing process as a simulation that does not actually place any distance between G‑d and creation. At the end of chapter 21 he explicitly emphasizes that we are not speaking here of the removal of divine presence, but of its concealment: “All occurrences of tzimtzum are in the aspect of concealed countenance, to veil the revelation and vitality drawn from the word of G‑d.”34 Yet, even in this passage, the externalizing symbol of verbal expression is preserved intact, though it has already been tempered by the more internal analogy of thought. Tzimtzum is still understood to place a gap between transcendent divinity and the creative process, albeit an epistemological gap rather than an ontological one.

R. Menachem Mendel points out, however, that in Patach Eliyahu R. Schneur Zalman explicitly reframed tzimtzum as a process of internalization, whereby divine revelation is not simply removed or concealed, but is rather drawn into the omnipresent transcendence of the divine essence. Even more significantly, in Lehavin Mah Shekatuv Be’otzrot Chaim this conception of tzimtzum is illustrated with precisely the analogy described in the Tanya, chapters 20 and 21, and succinctly sharpened in chapter 33: “the existence of all created things is literally effaced before Him like the effacement of letters of speech and thought in their source and root, the being and essence of the soul.”35

From the interface of these three texts it emerges that the motif of letters itself represents the interfacing directions of the creative process. These texts collectively depict creation as a process of simultaneous externalization and internalization. Rather than a move beyond the divine self, speech/creation can be better thought of as a textual/cosmic process of divine introspection. In extending finite formulations of divine revelation (“letters”) into a realm of apparent otherness, G‑d is actually effacing the external expression of divine infinitude within the intimate essence of divine selfhood. Here it is worth noting Elliot Wolfson’s discerning observation that “effacing is always also a facing of what cannot be faced.” It is precisely in the face of otherness that we can apprehend the unfaceable essence, of which G‑d said to Moses, “and my face you shall not see.”36

We previously described the scholar’s internalization of knowledge within the psychic essence of intellection as being more intimately bound with the inner self than when such knowledge is consciously formulated and externally expressed.37 R. Menachem Mendel’s point is that the same applies to G‑d: Overt revelation of divine infinitude (or ain sof) actually represents something of a departure from the intimate transcendence of the divine self, and it is the concealing finitude of creation and tzimtzum that is more intimately bound with the essential being of G‑d. Overt revelation is the veil in which the essence is obscured. But the veneer of concealing externalization is paradoxically transparent to the omnipresence and ineffability of G‑d’s essential being. The externalizing movement into the creative process is simultaneously an internalizing retreat into the essence of divine selfhood. Returning to the scholarly motif of the text, the cosmos is the textual interface through which the essence of divine being is projected in otherly form, and thereby more intimately apprehended.38

When its implications are fully unpacked, R. Menachem Mendel’s gloss in Lehavin Mah Shekatuv Be’otzrot Chaim provides an innovative reading of the created cosmos as the self-referential textualization of divinity. But this analysis also provides a more general example of the intertextual method with which he engaged his grandfather’s teachings—especially in his role as editor and commentator in Likutei Torah—and of the interpretive boldness with which he further developed Chabad’s mystical thought. In placing different texts in correspondence to one another, he yet preserves their autonomous integrity. It is in highlighting the ways in which they overlap and are mutually illuminated that he uncovers paradoxical depths that previously went unarticulated.39 Here, the interplay of different ways in which the analogy of letters is deployed—whether as text, as thought, or as speech—uncovers a textual theory of the interrelationship of G‑d with the created cosmos. In the following section we will explore a sociological theory of similarly cosmic proportion, as described elsewhere in R. Menachem Mendel’s writings.

* * *


Derech Mitzvotechah: Text, Context, and Clarity

Derech Mitzvotechah is likely R. Menachem Mendel’s best known and most widely studied work. As in the case of Likutei Torah, R. Schneur Zalman’s oral teachings form its foundation. Yet these two works are distinguished from one another in several fundamental ways, the most obvious being stylistic: The discourses in Likutei Torah range widely in length and content, and primarily follow the yearly cycle of festivals and weekly Torah readings. In contrast, Derech Mitzvotechah presents a fairly uniform series of discourses exploring the mystical significance of specific biblical commandments.40

More significantly, and less obviously, Derech Mitzvotechah also represents a very different form of engagement with R. Schneur Zalman’s teachings. As described above, in Likutei Torah R. Menachem Mendel preserved the original transcripts, but enhanced them by interpolating material from other transcripts, along with his own illuminating citations, explanations, and comments. In Derech Mitzvotechah he deployed his editorial skill and lucidity to render R. Schneur Zalman’s original teaching with expansive clarity and explanatory readability. In this work R. Menachem Mendel rarely includes supplementary comments and insights of his own. The general texture of the original teaching is preserved intact, but contextualized by other sources, and rendered far more orderly and accessible for the less initiated reader.41

In Derech Mitzvotechah the contextualization of R. Schneur Zalman’s teachings within the wider tradition of Jewish thought is especially noteworthy. Each discourse is prefaced with a relevant quote from the 13th century codification of the commandments, Sefer Ha-chinuch, and with a brief discussion of the significance of the commandment according to Lurianic teachings. Maimonides, Nachmanides, Abarbanel and other classical authorities feature far more prominently than in Likutei Torah, and especially so in the two extensive treatises dedicated to the respective commandments of prayer and belief in G‑d.42

* * *

The False Dichotomy of the Spiritual and the Social

The discourse to which we now turn concerns the commandment to “love your fellow as yourself,”43 and more specifically, Hillel’s famous teaching: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the entirety of the Torah, and the rest is commentary.”44 This discourse exists in several different transcripts, and may have been delivered orally by both R. Schneur Zalman and by R. Menachem Mendel, with only slight variations.45 Of all the different versions, the one published in Derech Mitzvotechah is the most developed, displaying the classically lucid characteristics of that work.46

"On One Foot" Hillel and the Convert, Shoshannah Brombacher, 2008
"On One Foot" Hillel and the Convert, Shoshannah Brombacher, 2008

In his classical commentary to the Talmud, Rashi offers two possible interpretations of Hillel’s statement. The first renders it an allegorical reference to the obligation to fulfill G‑d’s will: “Your friend… this refers to the Holy One, blessed be He. Do not transgress His word, for it is hateful to you when your friend transgresses your will.” Rather than the interpersonal contract that the literal reading highlights, this allegorical explanation places G‑d at the center of ethical and religious life. This provides an adequate explanation of how Hillel’s teaching comprises “the entirety of the Torah,” but only by circumventing the social component suggested by a literal reading.

Rashi’s second explanation is that Hillel is indeed referring “to your literal friend.” But this social contract, he is forced to acknowledge, only comprises the “majority of the commandments,” which are indeed precepts concerning things that we should not do to others. Yet there are many other commandments—relating to religious rituals, attitudes, prayer, and the like—which Rashi acknowledges have nothing to do with Hillel’s teaching.47

At the outset of the present discourse R. Menachem Mendel highlights the difficulty of preserving the literal form of all elements of Hillel’s teaching, precisely because it emphasizes the centrality of the social, or the interpersonal, to all the commandments, even those that are religiously, personally, and privately orientated: “This is all very well regarding commandments that concern the relationship between man and his fellow. But what is there to say about commandments concerning the relationship between man and G‑d?”48

The central argument of this discourse is that this question actually represents a false dichotomy. There is no difference between the civil and the religious, between interhuman contract and the contract between G‑d and man, between the social and the spiritual. These are categories that we intuitively assume to be utterly distinct, but which are in-fact integral parts of a single whole.49

* * *

Divine Singularity, Human Intersociality, and the Sacralization of Spirituality

The central tension between the utter singularity of G‑d and our direct experience of the fractured multiplicity of the created realm, has already been noted above. In the present discourse, the concern to overcome this tension is expanded beyond the private realm of personal dedication to G‑d, and enshrined as the ultimate purpose of the cosmos as a whole. While the previous discussion focused on the kabbalistic motifs of tzimtzum and reshimu, the present one focuses on the motifs of tohu and tikun, which respectively embody chaotic multiplicity and unified harmony. It is the latter that constitutes the ultimate telos of the cosmos, and which must first be realized in human society.

The ideal state of unified harmony is not merely something that we must seek to realize, but even now is the subliminal foundation upon which all the diversities of reality stand. This is illustrated by the analogy of the human body, whose apparently distinct limbs and organs actually function in harmony, as unified parts of a single person. The body is not simply a collection of parts, but an integral system in which each element is rendered complete only as a component of the greater whole. This model is applied first to the Jewish nation, and then to the entire cosmos.

Following Lurianic sources, “all of Israel are fundamentally the single body of the soul of Adam (adam ha-rishon, the first man)…” Accordingly, we should not simply see ourselves as individuals, but as intimately bound with all the other “limbs” of the nation.50 In a particularly strong formulation, R. Menachem Mendel explains that “every person is composed of all the souls of Israel… and if this is so, within you is the other too.” Being in harmony with others, accordingly, is the condition by which we preserve our own integrity as individuals.51

Maimonides already identified intersociality as a defining element of human nature. But he principally ascribed this to necessity—man’s survival depending on complex agricultural, economic, and political processes, which are only viable through the collaboration of many individuals.52 From a more mystical perspective, intersociality does not merely belong to the external realm of utilitarian practice. Intersociality is a soul thing, an essential component of man’s inner world, and it derives from the unity and harmony that divine illumination engenders. Again invoking Lurianic themes, R. Menachem Mendel explains that this is the very reason that G‑d called man ‘adam’; it is shorthand for adamah le-elyon, which means ‘analogous to the supernal.’ The essentially social character of man is “drawn from the cosmic aspect of supernal man (adam de-le’eilah)…” and “supernal man is synonymous with the divine name ‘mah’ as it resides in tikun so that the ten attributes (eser sefirot) should be composed of one another…”53

This passage draws a direct line from the intersocial to the cosmic and the divine. ‘Mah’ is a configuration of the four letter name of G‑d that specifically signifies the overt revelation of divinity rather than its concealed presence. Tikun and tohu are the respectively harmonious and chaotic blueprints of cosmic reality. Tikun is a realm of collaboration, such “that kindness shall encompass discipline, and discipline [shall encompass] kindness, etc.” conducively communicating the all-encompassing singularity of divine revelation (‘mah’). Tohu, on the other hand, is the exact inversion of that paradigm: the ten attributes do not act in concert, but assert themselves independently and exclusively, obscuring the essential integrity of divinity with an opaque veil of divisiveness. Divine revelation, it transpires, is essentially dependent on harmonious collaboration.54

Returning to the human realm, this line of thinking leads us to the conclusion that if spiritual practices and experiences do not stand on an interpersonal foundation then they are not sacred either. It is for this reason, R. Menachem Mendel explains, that the commandment “to love your fellow as yourself” is indeed central to every aspect of the Torah, including those commandments that seem to be entirely spiritual, religious, personal, and private in nature. This is exemplified by the advice rooted in Lurianic teachings and enshrined in Jewish law,55 that in preparation for prayer you accept the commandment “to love your fellow,” because “it is impossible to achieve such ascent unless one is complete and healthy, that is, comprised of all the souls… Then one ascends favorably before G‑d, [becoming encompassed] in divine wisdom, which encompasses all the souls, literally as one.”56

It is not simply that every spiritual advance we make as individuals impacts all of society and the cosmos as a whole. It is that we ourselves are incomplete as individuals so long as we separate ourselves from any element of society. We cannot align ourselves with G‑d unless our shared plurality is made to reflect the all-encompassing harmony of divine singularity. It is consequently intersocial harmony that emerges as the defining characteristic of sacred spirituality.57

* * *

Self-Knowledge, Empathy, and the Concealing Veil of Love

The above discussion presents us with an innovative reconceptualization of the degree to which the social and the spiritual, the public and the private, are intertwined. It is the overt revelation of all-encompassing divinity that provides the fundamental basis of social integrity. It is social integrity that provides the fundamental basis for us to ascend as individuals before G‑d, wherein all souls are encompassed as one.

Yet, the second half of this discourse, as it is presented in Derech Mitzvotechah, takes all this one step further. We now move from a model of spiritual and social interdependence to a model of socially dynamic spirituality. Here R. Menachem Mendel does not only describe G‑d as the basis for interpersonal and cosmic harmony, but as an active participant in cosmic society. Similarly, interpersonal harmony is not merely the basis for spiritual and religious activity, but is itself the most effective vehicle to the sacred telos of all existence.

As in the earlier part of the discourse, this additional teaching is presented by R. Menachem Mendel as a further analysis of Hillel’s statement, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the entirety of the Torah.” Notably, Hillel reformulated the positive commandment “to love your fellow as yourself” in distinctly negative terms. This led some commentators to conclude that he was indeed interpreting the biblical formulation to refer only to negative commandments, such as “do not murder” and “do not steal,” rather than as a positive injunction to do good to one’s fellow.58 In the present discourse, however, the distinctly negative formulation is not interpreted as a limitation on the scope of Hillel’s teaching, but rather as an incisive indication of what it really means to love another individual.

The unspoken assumption here seems to be that empathy is the ultimate test of love, and that the ultimate test of empathy lies in how a person deals with the real faults of their beloved. Conversely, it is the violation of empathy, expressed in the intrusive and judgmental exposure of our faults, that we each experience as most hateful and most hurtful. To “love your fellow as yourself,” therefore, is to see their faults with the same benevolence and sensitivity as you see your own. Following Hillel’s formulation, this means not to “do to your friend” the very thing that would be most “hateful to you,” exposing their faults to the violent scrutiny of the contemptuous other.59

R. Menachem Mendel elaborates on the way we see our own faults, and on the way we react when they are exposed by others, at some length:

It’s not that you don’t know your own faults at all. On the contrary, you are able to see and understand the depth of your depravity more than another person can. For the other can only see with his eyes, but you can see into your heart. Rather… your fault does not intrude on your consciousness to the degree that it disturbs you, and [on this count] it as if you do not see it at all. For due to the great love, with which you love yourself very much, all your iniquities that you know of in your mind are veiled in encompassing love, so that your knowledge shall not be drawn forth to disturb you emotionally…

You do not see your own faults because they are submerged and effaced in overwhelming love… But when another points out your fault and comprehends it, you becomes greatly angered, though you know yourself that it is true. This is because your anger is not due to the essential depravity that is falsely imagined by your friend, for you know that it is true, but rather [you are angered] due to your friend’s knowledge… being intrusive and disturbing… You are angry at your friend for the exposure, that he exposed your fault from the concealing veil of love.

This is [the meaning of Hillel’s statement] “what is hateful to you,” i.e. this exposure, “do not do to your friend,” i.e. do not see his faults and inequities as intrusive and significant—whether they are worldly matters, things that come between one man and his friend, whether they are heavenly matters—rather your love for him should be so great that it veils the inequities and does not allow them to come from knowledge to disturb you emotionally… ‘mighty waters cannot extinguish [the love]’ etc.60

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Social Integrity, Cosmic Repair, and the Suspension of Divine Judgment

On my reading, the above passage is not only descriptive, but also prescriptive. The correct way to deal with personal faults, whether social or religious, is from a place of loving self-knowledge, rather than a place of emotional disturbance and anxiety. When dealing with the faults of another, a similar principle must be applied. It is not that we should overlook or ignore other people’s faults. But rather than reacting to them with intrusive emotion and rejection we should embrace the flawed other with the same love and empathy that healthy individuals extend to their own flawed selves.61

True love, in other words, is nothing less than the empathetic obliteration of all sense of otherness, the unveiling of the singular soul of Adam, collective man.62 In the continuation of this passage, R. Menachem Mendel explains that by eradicating the schisms within society we also eradicate the cosmic schism separating the transcendent holiness of G‑d from the indwelling of G‑d within the world:

Therefore this [commandment] constitutes ‘the entirety of the Torah.’ For through the inter-encompassment of the souls of Israel with one another—such that they become literally one, as if they are one single unit—this causes a wondrous thing above, which is the foundation and telos of the entirety of the Torah; that is, the unification of divine transcendence (qudsha brikh hu) and its indwelling (shekhinteh); its indwelling being the lower mother, the matron, the source of the souls of Israel…63

To love your fellow as yourself, in other words, is to overcome what we described earlier as the central tension between the utter singularity of G‑d, on the one hand, and our direct experience of the fractured multiplicity of the created realm, on the other. As a simple singularity, unconstrained and indefinable, G‑d transcends the multiplicity of creation. As the spirit and substance of all the multiplicity of creation, G‑d also dwells within creation, and more specifically, within the myriad souls of the Jewish nation. These two facets of divine being—identified respectively as divine transcendence (qudsha brikh hu) and its indwelling (shekhinteh)—represent the traumatic bifurcation of the divine self that lies at the very foundation of creation, and which in many kabbalistic texts is associated with the Torah’s account of the separation of Eve from Adam.64

The undoing of this bifurcation is the foundation and telos of all the commandments of the Torah. But this is achieved most saliently through the loving unification of all the souls of Israel, since they most directly embody the indwelling of G‑d within the multiplicity of creation. It is in overcoming that multiplicity with mutual love, seeing themselves as a single whole, that the indwelling of G‑d is itself repaired and reunified. To the degree that Israel is harmoniously transparent to the utter singularity of G‑d, so divine transcendence is openly unified with its indwelling in creation.

What makes this model of the cosmic society so profoundly dynamic is that empathetic obliteration of otherness between people extends to G‑d as well. Through mutual love and cosmic repair, the collective soul of Israel is no longer seen as distinct from the divine self. In R. Menachem Mendel’s words: “When the souls of Israel are inter-encompassed and become unified… G‑d is unified with Israel… and supernal man [i.e. G‑d] does not see his own faults, and forgives the sins of Israel… as it is written ‘He did not gaze at the iniquity of Jacob’ (Numbers 23:21)… ‘He saw iniquity but did not contemplate it’ (Job 11:11)…” Though G‑d knows Israel's faults, that knowledge is now experienced as self-knowledge, and as such is veiled in empathetic love, rather than expressed in emotional judgement.65

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One People: From the Particular to the Universal

The discussion in Derech Mitzvotechah places specific emphasis on the souls of Israel. But the fact that their collective interinclusion is primarily identified with the soul of Adam, the father of all humanity, implies that intersocial harmony must ultimately extend to all of mankind. Moreover, while the souls of Israel are upheld as the most salient expressions of divinity within the world, their mission is undeniably universal—to reveal G‑d’s presence throughout all of creation, and to encompass the entire cosmos in harmonious unity.

As documented in a recent study by Shaul Magid, what remains implicit in the present text is explicated in an earlier iteration of this teaching found in Kedushat Levi, by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, a contemporary and colleague of R. Schneur Zalman. While less developed in terms of its psychological, sociological, and cosmological theorization of what it means to love the other, this earlier iteration is notable for its emphasis that Hillel’s statement was made in reply to a convert; a non Jew who sought to understand the covenantal Torah and thereby enter the Jewish fold.

R. Levi Yitzchak interprets the demand made by the convert—“teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot”—as a quest for the unifying core of all the Torah’s commandments: “The convert said, ‘I wish to convert, to understand that even the interpersonal commandments are encompassed in the unity of the Creator… Then I shall apprehend that even their rational laws (mishpatim)’ cannot be known and have no natural reason.” Hillel’s response—“what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow”—points to a principle of equivalence among people rooted in the fundamental belief that “one G‑d created us, we are all from one quarry.”

Most striking are the conclusions that R. Levi Yitzchak draws: “Accordingly, even the reason for the interpersonal commandments is due to the unity of the creator… and also in [following] the decrees of the states and the laws of the land, man must serve the one G‑d and understand that He is singular and unique. For this reason the peoples must transform into one people, and in us shall be fulfilled [the vision of the prophets]: then peoples shall be transformed into the people of G‑d,66 and many peoples shall go and say to the house of Jacob let us go together in the light of G‑d, and we shall go in His ways67 infinitely.”68

Here, the sacred service of divine unification is extended beyond the interpersonal laws prescribed by the Torah to include good citizenship and laws legislated by the state. Moreover, the principle of intersocial harmony is explicitly extended to all peoples; progressing together in the way of G‑d, they must ultimately be united as one people.69

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In our earlier discussion of Likutei Torah, an intertextual model of the cosmos emerged. In the present discussion of Derech Mitzvotechah, a corresponding intersocial model unfolds. Just as the creative process can be read as the self-referential textualization of divinity, so can it be read as the socialization of divinity; a process by which G‑d builds a facade of multiplicity and otherness, precisely in order that it should be overcome. The macrocosmic schism between divine transcendence and its indwelling in creation is embodied in our microcosmic experience as individuated selves. And to repair the schisms of society is to achieve the ultimate telos of all reality. G‑d is affirmed in society to the degree that society is transparent to, and thus effaced within, the divine source of social integrity.

Equally important is the point made earlier, that if spiritual practices and experiences do not stand on an interpersonal foundation then they are not sacred either. The sacredness of personal spirituality is only affirmed to the degree that it effaces the cosmic boundary that separates the other from the experience of the individual. As individuated selves we are incomplete and disempowered, reflecting the self-destructive anarchy of tohu rather than the sacred unity of tikun. To overcome individuation is not to be diminished but to be enlarged, expanding our sense of self beyond physical constriction and corporeal intuition. The empathetic overcoming of otherness brings all individuals to their ultimate completion in the composite singularity of the divine self, which itself constitutes the cosmic society.