Letting the Heart Speak

The Rebbe Rayatz related1 that during the Nazi bombardment of Warsaw, he once took refuge in a communal bomb shelter together with hundreds of other Jews. As one particularly powerful and close blast rocked the shelter, the room was filled with the spontaneous outcry of Shema Yisrael.

This was not an intellectual response. It was the inner voice of the Jewish soul speaking, and that voice resounded clearly from the heart of every Jew, be he a small child, a non-observant adult, or the leader of the generation.

Neither a person’s understanding nor his conscious feeling defines his faith in G‑d. A Jew believes in G‑d because he is a Jew. His faith is the natural expression of his innate G‑dly core. Because his soul is an actual part of G‑d,2 he shares an inherent bond with Him. Experiencing faith means identifying with this G‑dly core.3

Indeed, the English terms “faith” and “belief” are somewhat lacking in their description of this type of bond. These terms have a certain connotation of weakness: our intellects cannot grasp a concept and so we believe in it. Emunah, the term for faith in the Holy Tongue, by contrast, points to the existence of an intrinsic bond that transcends our minds and hearts and reflects the essence of who we are.

And since our identification with G‑d comes from a deeper level than our intellect or emotions, we relate not to the levels of G‑dliness that are revealed and can be perceived by our minds, but to His core and essence. There is an element of G‑d manifest in creation; the existence of such G‑dliness can be grasped in thought. But then there is a dimension of G‑dliness that transcends creation – G‑d as He exists for Himself, as it were. Emunah empowers us to connect to this aspect of His Being.

Since G‑dliness lies at the core of every person’s existence, this inner bond will naturally seek to surface in our thought, speech, and deed. As we proceed through life, something inside will be striving to lift this connection from the subconscious to the conscious.

Must Faith Be a Command?

From this perspective, faith is not a religious requirement but a natural part of our makeup. Our belief in G‑d does not stem from an understanding that G‑d is so great that He is worthy of being served or because Judaism requires us to recognize G‑d’s existence. Just as we eat, drink, and breathe naturally, without giving the matter a second thought, so too, our connection with G‑d is an inherent dimension of our being that surfaces effortlessly, independent of our conscious thought or will.

This idea is reflected in the treatment of the concept of faith in Jewish Law. There are Rabbis4 who maintain that there is no mitzvah to believe in G‑d. A mitzvah is a commandment, something that we would not do were we not commanded. Faith need not be commanded, because even without the mitzvah, a Jew believes in G‑d.

There are, however, other Rabbis5 who maintain that faith is a mitzvah. They do not deny the existence of this inner Divine potential. On the other hand, they recognize that there is an entire dimension of our personality that does not search for connection with G‑d. Our Sages refer to it as the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. In chassidic terminology, it is called the nefesh habehamis, the animal soul. But most of us know it so well that we don’t need a name for it. It’s the dimension of our life that looks at the material reality that confronts us and desires very little more than its own satisfaction.

Now, our lives are a tug of war between these two aspects of our being: our inner G‑dly core and our ordinary material consciousness. To point us in the direction of the spiritual, G‑d gave us the Torah and its mitzvos,which provide us with guidelines and goals for our conduct. The commandment to believe in G‑d mandates that we make the awareness of Him part of our lives, not only from time to time, when our spiritual consciousness is inspired, but continually.

Indeed, our Rabbis6 consider this commandment of such fundamental importance that they identify it with the verse:7 “I am G‑d, your L-rd” which begins the Ten Commandments. For every dimension of our spiritual service depends on developing an ongoing relationship with G‑d.

Knowing and Believing

In his treatise Mitzvas Haamanas Elokus, the Tzemach Tzedek8 expounds upon the definition of the mitzvah “I am G‑d, your L-rd.” He explains that there are some9 who interpret the mitzvah as mandating the knowledge of G‑d, while others10 construe the mitzvah as one of faith and belief.

Each of the two – knowledge and faith – possesses an advantage the other lacks. Knowledge endows a person with strength and confidence in his relationship with G‑d, giving him an unshakable foundation upon which to work, for knowledge represents the objective appreciation of reality, seeing something as it is. And when a person sees G‑d’s presence in his life and knows how He permeates all existence, optimism and self-assurance well up within him. He realizes he is living in G‑d’s world. Existence is not a dog-eat-dog challenge to get ahead, but a Divine plan, over which G‑d carefully watches.

Faith, by contrast, is above a person’s day-to-day conscious experience. He definitely believes, but what he believes is beyond his reach. Indeed, for that reason, a dichotomy can arise. To cite an example given by our Sages,11 before breaking into a house, a thief prays to G‑d for help in his burglary. Now, he obviously believes in G‑d, for he prays to Him. Yet his belief is not internalized, as reflected in his willful violation of G‑d’s commands.

Within most of us, there is a similar – though perhaps not as extreme – dichotomy. Since faith is above our knowledge, there is the possibility that our day-to-day conscious experience will not be aligned with it.

Stepping Beyond Our Mind’s Grasp

On the other hand, there is an advantage to faith, for the very strength of knowledge becomes its weakness. The fact that knowledge of G‑d can be grasped within our understanding implies that we are not appreciating G‑d as He truly is, for our minds are limited and cannot comprehend Him completely. This failing is not merely a function of lethargy on our part; it is inherent to the human condition. Indeed, it is said – not only of men but also of the angels and the most developed spiritual beings – “No thought can comprehend him.”12 Or to paraphrase R. Yosef Albo,13 “To know Him, one would have to be Him.” Our minds can only grasp defined entities and G‑d has no definition or limit. Tapping the resources of faith, by contrast, enables us to relate to G‑d as He exists in His infinity.

Knowledge makes it possible for us to establish a bond with G‑d as He exists after contracting Himself to relate to our framework of existence. Faith opens us up to the possibility of stepping beyond that framework and bonding with Him as He exists above creation, as He is for Himself, as it were.

Since both knowledge and faith enable us to expand different dimensions of our relationship with G‑d, the Torah commands us to employ both of these dimensions of our spiritual personalities in our service of Him. The explanation of the workings of these powers and their place in our Divine service is the focus of the first chapters of the Tzemach Tzedek’s treatise.

Integrating Faith

The continuation of the Tzemach Tzedek’s treatise focuses on the interrelationship between faith and knowledge. He explains Judaism’s fundamental Principles of Faith as listed by Rambam, but interprets them according to the Kabbalah. In doing so, he expands the conceptual framework on which these principles were originally based.

To explain: There is a perplexing statement in the writings of Ramak, one of the foremost sages of the Kabbalah:14 “Whoever does not study [the teachings of the Kabbalah] is a heretic.” On the surface, this statement is difficult to understand, for throughout the centuries, many Jews, including even some of the greatest Torah leaders, did not study this branch of wisdom. Can we legitimately say that all of these people are heretics?

We can resolve this question on the basis of the explanations given above that there are two dimensions to our faith:

a) belief that stems from the soul; the fundamental connection a Jew has to G‑d because he is a Jew and his soul is an “actual part of G‑d from Above.”

b) the efforts to internalize that belief through knowledge and intellect.

Every Jew – whether or not he has studied Kabbalah – believes, because that is the essence of his being. When, however, he attempts to probe intellectually and comprehend the fundamental principles on which that belief is based, errors can be made.

The Limits of Mortal Wisdom

G‑d is G‑d. He is infinite and transcends any definitions that can be offered by the logical frameworks that mortals can conceive. As such, when we begin to try to explain how He is G‑dlike, we are going to encounter conceptual difficulties. Ultimately, as long as we rely on our own minds, we are bound to compromise on certain elements of His infinity. For try as we might to think abstractly, we understand things in our own terms, and a limited human being cannot understand G‑d.

Take, for example, two basic concepts: the oneness of G‑d, the idea that He is unified with every created being, and the construct that He does not change.

Both are essential to our faith. If G‑d were not one with every entity in existence, there would be other gods. For a lack of oneness would imply that an entity that is not one with G‑d exists independently. And what is another god if not an entity that exists independent of Him? Even if we would posit that He is more powerful than that independent entity and see that independent entity as subservient to Him, we would still have a G‑d and a demigod. Judaism does not countenance such belief.

Similarly, the concept that G‑d cannot change is fundamental to the definition of G‑d. For change implies that the entity which is changed is influenced by the entity that changes it. If we say that another entity can influence G‑d and He reacts to it, we return to the situation where G‑d, though more powerful, shares His authority with demigods who can affect Him and sway His decisions.

But when placed together, the two principles create a paradox: How can G‑d be one with every entity, willfully controlling each one with careful providence, giving reward and punishment, and yet be simple and unchanging?

Nor can we say that this is possible because there are multiple dimensions within G‑d that allow Him to do this. For G‑d must be an integral whole. Otherwise there would be many gods, for each of the separate elements of His being would be a god.

And so, such questions could lead one to a quandary. That is the Ramak’sintent in saying that without studying Kabbalah, a person will ultimately find himself within the borders of heresy. From the standpoint of faith, the questions need not be considered; one can believe blindly. But when a person operates from the perspective of intellect and tries to resolve these questions based on mortal logic alone, it is likely that he will come to heretical conclusions. For mortal wisdom cannot comprehend G‑dliness, and the explanations the person will give will either compromise on G‑d’s oneness – allowing for the existence of entities that are separate from Him – or they will compromise on His integrity, either allowing for the possibility that He changes, or viewing Him as a composite of several different qualities.

The Secret of Faith

The Kabbalah resolves this paradox through the concept of Sefiros, for the Sefiros are a composite of oros (“lights)and keilim (“vessels”). The oros express infinite G‑dly light. They unite with the keilim which represent the attributes that comprise worldly existence – e.g., Chochmah (“wisdom”), Binah (“understanding”), Chesed (“kindness”) and Gevurah (“might”) – as it exists in its most perfect form. As explained below, at this level, these attributes are an exression of G‑d’s oneness and not a contradiction to it. They do not exist as independent entities, but as expressions of G‑dliness. Through the union of G‑d’s light with the keilim, He manifests His providence in every element of existence. For this reason, the kabbalistsrefer to the Sefiros as “the secret of faith.”15

Can G‑d Be Termed “Wise”?

The Tzemach Tzedek explains these concepts by referring to a philosophical debate that has raged throughout the history of Jewish thought. Jewish philosophers have explained that G‑d’s bond with the creation comes through knowledge. As Rambam writes:16 “All of the entities that exist... from the most elevated... to a small gnat in the navel of the earth, all come into being from the power of His truth. Since He knows Himself... He knows them all.”

The manner in which G‑d knows, however, is very different from our knowledge, as Rambam proceeds to explain:17

The Holy One, blessed be He, knows His truth and knows it as it is. He does not know with knowledge that is outside of Him, as [does] our power of knowing, for we and our knowledge are not one and the same. [With regard to] the Creator, by contrast, He, His knowledge, and His life are all one from every side and direction and in every manner of unity.

Rambam is explaining that unlike mortal knowledge in which man (the knower) knows with knowledge that exists independent of him, and he knows entities and concepts that exist outside of himself, G‑d is one with His knowledge in perfect unity. As such, His knowing of – and unity with – the created beings does not involve change, for He is knowing Himself and not an external entity.

Nevertheless, identifying G‑d with knowledge creates a conceptual difficulty, as Maharal of Prague protests:18

Intellect has a specific definition: it is the comprehension of the concept as it is. G‑d, by contrast, has no definition that can describe Him. Were one to say that His Essence is intellect, he would have given Him a definition.... [Instead,] He is a simple entity without any definition.

In other words, identifying G‑d with intellect (or any other quality) defines Him, and for G‑d to be G‑d, He must be infinite and indescribable. Any definition would limit Him. Although Rambam has defined G‑d in a manner that transcends mortal limits, it does not transcend all limits, for knowledge itself has a definition and G‑d is utterly transcendent.

To Be One With His Very Infinity

Maharal is emphasizing that Rambam’s approach compromises G‑d’s infinity. Nevertheless, there is a conceptual difficulty with Maharal’s approach as well. We must say that G‑d knows creation; otherwise, it would exist apart from Him. Maharal recognizes that difficulty and explains:19

He knows everything with His wisdom and brings about everything with His power. And there is no difference between the understanding with which He comprehends [all] existence and the other activities He performs. For understanding is also an activity and is expressed as a verb, as it is said: “And G‑d knows,” just as it is said, “and G‑d spoke.”

Maharal’s resolution is, however, somewhat problematic. Why does he postulate that knowledge is an activity? Because performing an activity does not involve change. (On a mortal level, it does involve a temporary change: one performs the deed and returns to a state of rest. Nevertheless, an activity does not involve an inner change, in contrast to intellect and emotion that change the very makeup of the person.) By saying that G‑d’s knowledge is an activity, Maharal is implying that His Essence is above knowledge, and is therefore unaffected by it.

This, however, leads to another conceptual difficulty because it implies that His Essence is not united with the world. Seemingly, according to Maharal, it is merely the lower dimensions of G‑d – His activities – that are involved with the world, but He as He exists for Himself transcends our existence entirely. Such an approach would compromise G‑d’s unity, for the implication is that we have no connection to that dimension of His Being.

Beyond Even the Limits of Infinity

The AriZal resolves the above difficulty by expanding the explanation of G‑d’s infinity, to borrow the wording of the classic kabbalistic text, Avodas HaKodesh:20

The Ein Sof is the ultimate perfection. Just as It possesses an infinite dimension, It possesses a finite dimension. For if one would not say this, one would detract from Its perfection.

To explain: Infinity, when defined simply, can also be a limitation. Saying a quality is infinite implies that it is not finite. Thus, in contrast to knowledge or kindness that are defined qualities, something infinite cannot be known or defined intellectually. We can’t say what it is. Nevertheless, we can say what it isn’t, because there is something – finiteness – that is outside and separate from the infinite quality. And so, infinity also has a definition and thus, a limitation, as it were. As such, infinity in and of itself cannot serve as an appropriate description of G‑d.

It’s true that G‑d has a certain dimension, His light, which reflects His infinity. It is infinite and unbounded as He is. But He also has a finite dimension, the Sefiros, which represent how He has manifested Himself within the context of worldly existence. To refer to the explanation given by the Alter Rebbe:21

The sages of the Kabbalah acknowledge [the truth of Rambam’s] statements, [that G‑d can be described as “Knower, Knowledge and Known,] as Ramak writes in [his] Pardes. Even according to the Kabbalah of the AriZal, [Rambam’s] view is substantiated, [but applies only] to the investment of [G‑d’s] infinite light through many tzimtzumim in the vessels of ChaBaD of Atzilus, but not [in the realms of spiritual existence] above Atzilus. For as explained elsewhere, the Ein Sof 22 is infinitely transcendent and exalted above the essence and level of ChaBaD (to the extent that) the nature of the attributes of ChaBaD is considered a physical deed in relation to G‑d, as (Tehillim 104:24) states: “You made them all with Chochmah.

In other words, Rambam’s conception of G‑d as being one with His wisdom is appropriate when describing the process with which G‑d enclothes Himself in the Sefirah of Chochmah. Nevertheless, there exists an entire dimension of G‑dliness that transcends wisdom entirely. There Maharal’s description of G‑d’s infinity is appropriate. When we say that both concepts are true, we arrive at an even more comprehensive conception of infinity; one that defies all definitions.

Similarly, based on these concepts, we can resolve issues like the paradox between G‑d’s oneness with creation and His remaining unchanged. For the Sefiros enable Him to be one with every facet in existence, and yet this involvement does not affect His Essence or cause Him to undergo change.

Making These Concepts Accessible

These and other issues are discussed by the Tzemach Tzedek in the classic maamar entitled Mitzvas Haamanas Elokus which is part of his landmark text, Derech Mitzvosecha. For background information concerning that text and its place in the heritage of Chabad Chassidus, consult the first volume of the translation of Lessons in Derech Mitzvosecha.

As in that volume, this translation was a team effort combining the synergistic efforts of many individuals, including:

Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, who translated the text and composed the chapter outlines and the notes;

Rabbi Aharon Leib Raskin, who provided the references and the explanation of many difficult concepts, and who checked the accuracy of the translation.

Rochel Chana Riven, who edited the text, refusing to look at it as a mere professional job, but instead, asked question after question until she felt satisfied a reader would understand;

Rabbi Shmuel Rabin, who proofread the text;

Yosef Yitzchok Turner who designed the layout and typography, and

Rabbi Yonah Avtzon who supervised and participated in every dimension of the project, translating it from an abstract ideal to finished work.

To empower our readers to reach a more complete understanding of the text, we have produced a line-by-line translation of the Hebrew with interpolated additions and explanations and supplemented the text with footnotes. In addition, we have placed short summaries at the beginning of every chapter and longer synopses at its end that highlight the themes discussed. We have also included in-depth chapter outlines at the end of the book that will enable the reader to follow the text concept by concept.

Moreover, our goal was communication, that our readers understand, not just translation. With that intent in mind, we have produced “a shiur on paper.” Translator’s additions have been grafted into the text in a different typeface.

* * *

With regard to the explosion of the knowledge of G‑d in the era of Mashiach, the prophet tells us:23 “They will no longer teach – each man his fellow and each man his brother – saying: ‘Know G‑d,’ for they will all know Me.” The consummation of that prophecy is brought about by efforts to know G‑d in the present age. May this translation contribute to this goal and lead to the dawning of the era when “the knowledge of G‑d will fill the earth as the waters cover the ocean bed.”24

Sichos In English

Rosh Chodesh Sivan, 5778 (2018)