Zimzum: God and the Origin of the World


Zimzum: God and the Origin of the World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023), by Christoph Schulte

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

This scholarly work is an intellectual history of the reception of the concept of tzimtzum in various circles. The concept of Tzimtzum refers to the Kabbalistic notion of Divine “contraction” or “withdrawal.” In Lurianic Kabbalah, it is fundamental for understanding how the infinite Divine essence interacts with the finite world. According to this concept, before creation, God — often referred to in Kabbalistic literature as the Ein Sof (“infinite”) — filled all of existence, such that in order for creation of the finite world to occur, God needed to make space for creation by “withdrawing” or “contracting” His infinite presence. This withdrawal created a void or space, which resulted in a “place” for the finite world to come into existence outside of God Himself. Various emanations typified by the partzufim and the sefirot percolate from this highly spiritual “place” down to the material world which we occupy. The first and most supernal of these emanations is known in Kabbalah as Adam Kadmon, and it is from that realm that everything in creation emanates.

The first chapter discusses the emergence of the concept of tzimtzum in the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534–1572), known as Arizal. That chapter shows how even in the first generation after the Arizal, the correct interpretation of Lurianic Kabbalah became subject to dispute, as the Arizal’s prime disciples Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543–1620) and Rabbi Yisrael Sarug (d. 1610) disagreed over whether their master’s teaching was meant to be taken literally, or was merely a metaphoric way of relating a concept that actually lies beyond human comprehension. This difference of opinion continued into later generations and the debate engaged such important figures as Rabbi Menachem Azariah da Fano (1548-1620) Rabbi Avraham Cohen de Herrera (1570-1635), Rabbi Yishaya Horowitz (1558-1630), Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo of Candia (1591-1655), Rabbi Yosef Ergas (1685-1730), and Rabbi Immanual Chai Ricci (1688-1743).

The way Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1746) — known as the Ramchal — explains the idea of tzimtzum follows the traditional Kabbalistic view of identifying the Ein Sof with God Himself. Accordingly, he explains that because at the level of Ein Sof, God is infinite and unlimited, He therefore has no particular “goal” or “purpose,” because such objectives would, by definition, necessarily limit Him. Yet, because in His eternal benevolence, He wanted to create the world, He sought to "reign in" His infiniteness through tzimtzum, which allowed Him to create the world and achieve His goal of being ever-beneficent to something outside of Himself. This means that although He himself is limitless, He consciously chose to put constraints on Himself in order to create the finite world as we know it. When discussing Luzzatto, the author does not explore the idea found elsewhere in Ramchal’s writings that God’s tzimtzum was integral for man’s freewill.

An entire chapter of this book is devoted to how the concept of tzitzum was received in early Hassidic thought. In that chapter, the author focuses on how one of the foremost students of the Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760), Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch (1704-1772) — known as the Maggid of Mezritch — took the concept of tzimtzum as instructive in how man can accomplish imitatio dei by likewise “retreating” from worldly pleasures and focusing as much as humanly possible on immaterial, spiritual matters. Although this ascetic approach did not become a cornerstone for all Hassidic sects, it certainly influenced many later Hassidic Tzaddikim. Other Hassidic thinkers that this book treats are Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov (1772-1810), who also used the concept of tzimtzum in their respective Hassidic theosophies.

In the century after the Arizal’s passing, a Christian scholar named Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689) translated some important texts of Kabbalah into Latin, and his popular work brought the ideas of tzimtzum to a wider audience. From there, knowledge of tzimtzum spread to many Christian Hebraists and so-called Cabalists. As the author documents, there were varied reactions to these ideas in Christian circles. Some scholars took the ideas of Kabbalah, and particularly of tzimtzum, as universal ideas taught by Judaism and used that to look upon Judaism and the Jewish people more favorable as purveyors of these universal truths. Others offered Christological reinterpretations of the doctrine of tzimtzum, conflating Adam Kadmon (which does not actually refer to a person) as referring to none other than Christ himself.

Some Christian interpreters associated the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum with the heresy of pantheism, that is, the belief that God is equal to nature. In doing so, they painted all Jews in a bad light as though Kabbalists were followers of Spinoza, using that as fodder for the furtherance of anti-Semitism. One figure particularly associated with this approach is Johann Georg Wachter (1673–1757), who translated some Kabbalistic texts into German. It is actually his visual depiction of tzimtzum that appears on this book’s cover. Another figure who wrote something similar was the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819), who accused his fellow philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) of holding views in line with Kabbalah and Spinozism, seeing the two as interchangeable. Of course, the traditional Jewish approach to Kabbalistic cosmology sees God as encompassing the entirety of creation but also surpassing it, rather than equaling it (see responsa Chacham Tzvi §18).

Interestingly, the author shows how the famous German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) incorporated elements of the idea of tzimtzum into his Trinitarian way of explaining the contraction of the Divine (although the author admits that Schelling never actually used the word tzimtzum and seems to not have had any direct engagement with Kabbalah texts written in Hebrew).

Christians were not the only ones to reappropriate the Lurianic concept of tzimtzum for their own ideological purposes. In the writings of Sabbatian theologists like Abraham Miguel Cardozo (1627-1706) and Nechemia Chiyya Chayun (1650-1730), the concept of tzimtzum is presented in a different way. In contrast to the standard reading of Kabbalah that equates the Ein Sof with God, these Sabbatians used the concept of tzimtzum to support their contention that the Ein Sof is somehow something from which the God of Israel is born in a quasi-mythological way through tzimtzum, but is not equal to Him. This is important for Sabbatian antinomianism, as these Sabbatians recognize that the God of Israel gave the Torah which contains certain commandments and strictures, but they argue that the will of the ultimate Ein Sof might not always line up with that of the God of Israel, which according to their theology justifies their abrogating the Torah’s laws.

Other chapters in the book explore how tzimtzum is depicted in secular art and literature in more recent times. If I properly understood the author’s intent, he sees an example of a sort of secular deistic reading of tzimtzum in private letters written by the late scholar of Kabbalah Dr. Gershom Scholem (1897–1982). It seems that Scholem understood God’s apparent absence from This World as a reflection of His purposeful minimizing His presence through tzimtzum and retreating to allow nature to run its course.

Other recent appearances of tzimtzum that the author does not discuss include Hareidi pop culture, like Naftali Kempeh’s recent song Ohr Ein Sof, whose lyrics are drawn from Rabbi Chaim Vital’s account of tzimtzum. Similarly, Avinoam Fraenkel’s 2015 work Nefesh HaTzimtzum is a digest on Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh HaChaim and how it differs from Hassidic conceptions of tzimtzum. The author acknowledges Fraenkel’s work in his introduction, but does not actually engage with it.

In conclusion, Zimzum: God and the Origin of the World offers an insightful exploration into the intricate realm of tzimtzum, providing invaluable snippets of historical context that enrich the understanding of its diverse integrations across various contexts. Because this book is a translation from the author's earlier German study, it occasionally suffers from awkward verbiage and slightly inaccurate translations. However, these pitfalls should not detract from the reader's overall experience, as the depth of knowledge and the scholarly analysis presented within its pages offer a commendable resource for those delving into the nuanced complexities of tzimtzum and how it has been presented over the ages.