Jewish mysticism (kabbalah) and philosophy blog.

Levinas and Volozhin Essay

E-mail this post

Remember me (?)

All personal information that you provide here will be governed by the Privacy Policy of More...

The interval of space given by the light is instantaneously absorbed by light ...The illuminated object is something one encounters, but from the very fact that it is illuminated one encounters it as if it came from us. It does not have a fundamental strangeness. Its transcendence is wrapped in immanence. The exteriority of light does not suffice for the liberation of the ego that is the self's captive.[1]

At first glance, and without an attribution, the above quote could seem to the eyes of the scholar of Kabbalah as if it came from a traditional kabbalistic source. However, this quote was not drawn from the canon of kabbalistic writings, but rather from the writings of the avowedly non-mystical post-modernist philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. Though he is clear in his work that his philosophy is opposed to mystical ecstasis,[2] the kabbalisitic influences on Levinas’s thought have lately been a topic of scholarly discussion.[3] Despite the fact that some have claimed that there is little more than a slight resonance of kabbalistic thought in his work, it seems that this topic requires a more rigorous analysis, especially because of Levinas’s admiration of the theology of kabbalistic musar in the Mitnagdic work Nefesh ha-Hayyim by the Lithuanian R. Hayyim of Volozhin. In the course of this essay, I will attempt to illustrate some of the striking parallels which can be drawn between several of his philosophical concepts and the peculiar kabbalistic musar of R. Hayyim of Volozhin.

Specifically, both thinkers seem to share the ideas of the ‘beyond essence’ or Ein Soph and the trace of this ‘beyond essence’ that is visible in the world in the face and the kabbalistic olamot. In addition to these two ideas, Levinas and R. Hayyim also share a distaste for the mystical union in its ecstatic formulation that was so common among Hasidim. They claim that this formulation contains in it the danger that the mystic will proclaim that God is in everything and that therefore ethics is irrelevant. Both of them also, on the other hand, express the possibility that a certain form of mystical union may be acceptable—that manner of union and ‘loss of self’ which occurs during study, and at least in the case of R. Hayyim, during prayer. However, ethics must be preferred over mystical union, and on the rare occasion that mystical union may be permitted, it is only in the service of the ethical—i.e. in times of study and prayer, which are inherently subordinate to the ethical. Finally, I will also briefly discuss how the kabbalism of R. Hayyim provides in Levinas’s mind a theology and means of identification for contemporary Jews based on an understanding of our position in the cosmic scheme as human beings and the responsibility which this position entails.

Kabbalistic Mysticism or Kabbalistic Musar?

First, it is important to address the question which has been asked by the above-mentioned modern scholarship of whether or not Levinas may be said to be at all influenced by Kabbalah. According to Ajzenstat,

“Little has been written on the subject of whether Levinas’s thought bears affinities to Jewish mysticism. In what is perhaps the most widely circulated article on the subject, Charles Mopsik argues that while Levinas culled the writings of the Lurianic kabbalists for some of his central terms, images and ideas—‘the infinite, the trace, the il y a, shame, the feminine…’…--he used them improperly, without due regard for the Kabbalistic understanding of the human relation to God and the human mission on earth. Others, however, have begun to lay the ground for a counter-case…Mopsik’s critique, Wolosky’s and Handelman’s reticence, and Cohen’s qualified set of disclaimers remind us of the slippery status of the endeavor on which we are embarking…The proximities we will find between Levinas and the kabbalists are limited; as we will see, he may reject as many elements of their thought as he takes up.”[4]

Some may think that since R. Hayyim of Volozhin’s teacher the GRA wrote a commentary on the Ari’s Etz Hayyim that R. Hayyim must be a mystic. Shaul Magid proposes in his article on R. Hayyim of Volozhin that although Nefesh ha-Hayyim is a kabbalistic work, “the result of R. Hayyim’s presentation is an anti-mystical reading of Kabbala which requires us to re-think the relationship between Kabbala and mysticism, two categories which have often been conflated.”[5] I am reticent to define mysticism as strongly as Magid does by having it require mystical union. In spite of this, the present analysis will show that it is likely that Levinas rejects precisely that form of mysticism which Magid refers to in his article on Hayyim of Volozhin. In other words, Levinas rejects precisely what R. Hayyim rejects of mysticism—the danger of an ecstatic union with God which is so typical of Kabbalah in its Hasidic formulation.

Ajzenstat writes that “…the gist of my argument is not really that Levinas is a mystic; I contend only that he draws on the mystical tradition while rejecting what he calls mysticism…”[6] Perhaps Ajzenstat is referring here to exactly the same definition of mysticism as Magid in his article on Levinas. It seems that both R. Hayyim and Levinas are not ‘mystics’ in the traditional sense of the word, however, it is possible that both thinkers may be ‘kabbalists’ in the same Lithuanian, Mitnagdic sense.

Ajzenstat also points out that “There can be no doubt that Levinas has borrowed certain motifs from the Lurianic cosmogony; it may be recalled that even Mopsik, who denies any similarity between kabbalistic and Levinasian conceptions, allows that Levinas makes frequent and free use of the Lurianic symbols.”[7] Though “Charles Mopsik is not wrong to address the question of Levinas and the Kabbalah in general as the question of Levinas and Lurianic thought”[8], this is probably only true because Levinas read Luria through the eyes of Hayyim of Volozhin. Indeed, Magid points out in regard to Levinas’s affinity for R. Hayyim that: “It is no surprise then, that someone like Emanuel Levinas…could find such an affinity with Nefesh Ha-Hayyim.”[9] However, he then qualifies this statement by claiming that “I could not imagine him [Levinas] taking the same interest in the Zohar, Luria, or even the kabbalistic writings of the GRA.”[10] It appears then that Levinas’s thought may be said to be Lurianic only through the formulation of Lurianic Kabbalah presented by R. Hayyim.

Perhaps, though a complete analysis of this is beyond the scope of this paper, comparisons may be drawn between Levinas and the ethical Kabbalah which emerged from Safed in the ethical kabbalistic works of Moshe Cordovero and Eliyahu de Vidas. However, I must point out for clarity that while some mistakenly claim that Cordovero was “…Luria’s teacher…”[11], Cordovero was not actually Luria’s teacher, as Luria moved to Safed in 1570 and Cordovero died approximately two months later. The kabbalistic model presented in Cordovero’s distinct Salonikan school is particularly ethical (e.g.-Tomer Devorah and Reishit Hochmah) and may have also had an influence on R. Hayyim and the GRA’s dictinctly ethical mystical musar.

The Kabbalistic Model and Levinas in General

Despite Magid’s claim that R. Hayyim, whose views are so similar to Levinas, is “anti-mystical”[12], he still maintains that R. Hayyim “uses Kabbala as the ideological base for an anti-mystical devotional ideology.”[13] R. Hayyim does indeed use conventional kabbalistic terms and ideology, and it would seem therefore, that Levinas may be drawing on these as well. It would thus be helpful, before drawing out the more specific comparisons between Levinas and R. Hayyim, to give a very brief synopsis of the basic concepts from the Kabbalah which R. Hayyim uses in his Nefesh ha-Hayyim that will be discussed in this essay, and relate them in a general way to some of Levinas’s philosophy.

Medieval and pre-Modern Kabbalistic thought deals with the same questions as much of Jewish theology, that being the relationship between God and the world, but in its own distinctive way, and with its own unique symbols and terminology. Two of the most common kabbalistic ideas are Ein Soph and and Sephirot. In Magid’s words, “For Jewish mystics the two essential elements of hypostatic theory were (1) Eyn Sof, the notion of ‘being beyond essence’, the apophatic via-negativa, and (2) torat ha-sephirot, the emanation of that essence into being, or the katophatic presence of divinity which was then made accessible to the mystic.”[14] The language applied here by Magid is interesting for use in this particular analysis, for it is so evocative of Levinas’s concepts of the Other (or the I ly a) and the trace (or the face). Further, kabbalistic, and particularly Lurianic, thought contains the idea of the contraction (tzimtzum) of the infinite Ein Soph to create a space for the world, into which a channel (kav) of its infinity is inserted. In the thought of R. Hayyim, tzimtzum is equated with Ein Soph and the kav is associated with the sephirot, or the God present in the world.[15] In truth, according to both Luria and Volozhin, the contracted Ein Soph is actually the same as the realm from which it contracts itself.[16] However, the form of pantheism which this idea engenders is dangerous (particularly in the thought of R. Hayyim)[17], and therefore, these two separate symbols are used. In fact, this danger is precisely the crux of the difficulty which both R. Hayyim and Levinas wish to avoid in their thought.

According to Ajzenstat the connection between these kabbalistic ideas and Levinas’s theology is evidently clear without even referring to explicit passages from Levinas’s writings. In Ajzenstat’s words,

“Even without reference to any specific passage in Levinas, we can recall that Levinas’s God is withdrawn from the world; that he must be so in order to leave room for separate beings; that he leaves a trace of himself in the world, a trace that it is humankind’s mission to see or realize; and that this realization is accomplished by means of ethical action, which is also describable as a meeting of faces or a setting face to face. In addition, though it is perhaps coincidental, it is worth noting that there are five archetypal partzufim in the Lurianic cosmogony, and also five primary archetypal others encountered in Totality and Infinity…”[18]

In my analysis, I will deal primarily with the ideas of the illeity or Other, and the trace or face. In addition, I will on focus the trouble which both Levinas and R. Hayyim have with the utilization of these concepts in the conventional context of mystical union (devekut) which inspires a sense of pantheism that erases the idea of the transcendent. However, I will try to show that under some circumstances, such as study and prayer, both R. Hayyim and Levinas accept a certain manner of devekut, but not in the conventional sense in which the term is understood—that being a unio mystica in which the mystic loses herself in the divine.

Mitzido and Mitzideinu in the Words of R. Hayyim of Volozhin

Before beginning a more specific discussion of the ideas of Ein Soph and torat ha-sephirot in R. Hayyim’s and Levinas’s work, perhaps it will be useful to illustrate what Magid calls “the epistemological notion of perspectivity (m’zido-m’zidanu)”[19] which appears in Nefesh ha-Hayyim. According to Magid, this idea was used in the mystical school of the GRA and it “strengthens the thesis that they recognized the extent to which the oft quoted Zoharic passage that, ‘there is no place void of Him’ is an incontestable truism.”[20] In his article on R. Hayyim, Levinas calls these ideas God “on our side” and God “on his side”[21]

R. Hayyim explicates these ideas and our inability to investigate God “on his side” in the following excerpt:

All the foundations of the Torah, in all its warnings and commandments, all of them, positive and negative, all of them proceed in this manner. [This is] that from the side of our understanding there is most definitely a separation, and a change in places. In pure places we are permitted, and also obligated to speak and contemplate words of Torah, and in impure places, we are forbidden even to contemplate words of Torah. So it is with all matters and arrangements of obligation of our behavior that we were commanded from His mouth in the Holy Torah, and without this aspect that is ‘from our side,’ (mitzideinu) there is no place for Torah and Mitzvot at all.

In spite of this, the truth is that ‘from God’s side’ may He be blessed, one grasps His essence—he fills everything with perfect equality without separating, and no distinction or difference of place at all, but rather everything is a simple unity as before the creation. However, we cannot, and we are not allowed, to enter at all into a meditation on this awesome matter, to understand and to grasp how a Single Blessed Lord fills everything and every place with a simple unity and a perfect equality—perish the thought![22]

Here we can clearly see the two aspects of God, ‘from our side,’ and ‘from His side,’ as defined by R. Hayyim. “From our side,” there is a distinct transcendent God whose ethical orders we adhere to, but “from God’s side,” God actually is a perfect unity and fills everything. However, we are not able to meditate on this notion, as we risk the danger of losing the ethical distinctions which must exist “on our side.”

Levinas addresses this passage directly, conveying his fascination with these two ideas to us clearly in his article on R. Hayyim. He writes:

Associated with the world, God would not exhaust his religious significance, for he would thus represent only God from the human viewpoint—God ‘on our side’, as Nefesh ha’Hayyim expresses it. But God also has a meaning in the Tetragrammaton, signifying something that man cannot define, formulate, think, or even name. The creation of the worlds does not in fact introduce any difference into God which would have made a definition possible…The Talmudic expression ‘God has no place in the world, it is the world which has a place in God,’ is read in a radical way: God, like the spatial dimension of place, is the condition of all being and is not, moreover, in his geometrical essence, affected by that which fills him…It is ‘God on his own side’. Like the Kabbalists, our author designates him by the term En-Sof: the In-finite. A contradiction sets the God ‘on our side,’ towards which we return in the light of the hierarchy of the incatenation of beings, against the God ‘on his own side,’ which is not affected by the distinctions that the Torah presupposes between things (III.6).”[23]

Ein Soph and Illeity for Levinas and R. Hayyim

Both the philosophy of Levinas and the kabbalistic ideology of R. Hayyim contain the idea of that which is beyond essence. Though many kabbalists have named this idea, either calling it Ein Soph, or even the Tetragrammaton,[24] it in truth is beyond naming. The unutterable nature of the name is asserted for both the Other of Levinas and the kabbalists. This idea, as recounted earlier is equated with the God of the philosophers which can only be described through the negative, the via-negativa. In his discussion of Nefesh ha-Hayyim, Levinas discusses this idea at length. It is unclear whether he actually drew his concept of the Other or the I ly a from Ein Soph, but it is obvious that he recognized the similarity between his idea and Ein Soph, and especially in the manner in which it is described by R. Hayyim.

In Time and the Other, Levinas discusses his idea of the il y a. He approaches this idea through trying to define a state of “existing without existents.” He writes,

“How are we going to approach this existing without existents? Let us imagine all things, beings and persons, returning to nothingness. What remains after this imaginary destruction of everything is not something but the fact that there is [il y a]. The absence of everything returns as a presence, as the place where the bottom has dropped out of everything…a plenitude of the void, or the murmur of silence.”[25]

Though Levinas constructs this idea through contemplating the end of all things, since this idea, in truth, is beyond time itself, it could just as easily be constructed by imagining “all things, beings and persons,” coming from nothingness. The il y a, or perhaps we may call it Ein Soph, is the ground of being which Levinas calls beautifully “the murmur of silence.”

Though this idea conveys a certain sense of nothingness, Levinas is clear to avoid defining this word as ‘nothingness’, a definition which his teacher Heidegger used, as it again ontologizes the aontological, names the unnamable. This unnamable is Levinas’s “otherwise than being”. He writes in regard to this: “The otherwise than being is stated in a saying that must also be unsaid in order to thus extract the otherwise than being from the said in which it already comes to signify a being otherwise.”[26] Levinas also expresses this idea in another way when he writes that, “The exisiting that I am trying to approach is the very work of being, which cannot be expressed by a substantive but is verbal.”[27]

Ajzenstat seems to express a reticence in equating the idea of Ein Soph with the il y a, precisely, it seems, because of Levinas’s reservations about ontologizing this idea. In Ajzenstat’s words,

“The only parallel in Levinas to the idea that the En Sof exists before creation and fills all is the il y a, which is not divine but rather represents a totality that encompasses and therefore consumes all being, an infinite totality, an oxymoron that can only exist as an idea or an anxiety. The Lurianic notion of a being that is all being may sound totalizing to Levinas...”[28]

Despite modern scholarship’s reservations in equating these two ideas, it seems that Levinas makes it clear in his article on R. Hayyim that he does not feel that Ein Soph is totalizing. Levinas conveys this to us clearly, commenting on the use of the Tetragrammaton in naming this idea: “The Tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable Name, but a Name nevertheless, already betrays, as a name, the unnameable En-Sof.”[29] Perhaps we may address the scholars of Levinas’s work who are nervous about creating a totality directly through Levinas’s own words; “Admittedly, it will be said precisely when speaking of the Infinite, or when thinking of the unpronounceable Tetragrammaton, that man is already creating for himself a certain idea of God in his absolute, and giving him a name. But is it an idea, and is it a name? Does it not bring us down to negative theology?”[30]

This unnameable aspect of God needs to contract itself in Lurianic cosmogony in order to make room for a relationship with the world. Otherwise it is too foreign, too withdrawn for human beings who live in the world of distinctions to relate to. Puzzlingly, R. Hayyim associates this unnameable aspect of God Itself with the idea of tzimtzum. Perhaps this is because, “cryptically or paradoxically, only by means of this contraction is infinity produced, that is, only an infinity that stands in relation to separated beings ‘exists divinely’…”[31] Consequently, “separated beings relate to the divine, and these relations constitute a redemption of the diminution of contraction…”[32]

Levinas expresses this paradoxical relationship with the unknowable as the relationship with the other. In Levinas’s words: “To be sure the other [l’Autre] that is announced does not possess this existing as the subject possesses it; its hold over my existing is mysterious…the relationship with the other is a relationship with a Mystery.”[33]

The Worlds, the Partzuf and the Trace in the Face

If we cannot relate directly with God mitzido, how can we know and experience this contracted essence? In Lurianic cosomology, after Ein Soph’s contraction, It inserted a kav, or channel into the empty space, and left a reshimu, or residue of Itself in this world of being. This is what some kabbalists call the four worlds, the partzufim, or the sefirot. In addition to using these terms, R. Hayyim uses the divine epithet Elohim for this aspect of the divinity. It is through these partially obsured, channeled aspects of the one God which are evident in our finite world that we can access this unnameable Other in our lives.

Humans occupy a distinct place in this cosmogony, as they dwell, somehow, in all of the worlds through which God channels Itself. “Man has an affinity with all levels of the real.”[34] Levinas explicates this beautifully in his article on R. Hayyim:

“Various images and symbols that are also taken from the Kabbalistic tradition express the privileged character of the relation between man and the world on the one hand, and man and Elohim on the other, without it being immediately possible to bring together in a unique plastic form the images used. On the one hand, what is visible throughout is a connatural element between man and the whole of the worlds, and a special intimacy between man and Elohim… On the other hand, man is made up of the residues or the ‘samples’ of each of these countless worlds: his substance is a mixture of the worlds’ substances (I. 6). Or the worlds are connected with the various organs of the human body, each one subject to the norms of the Torah’s commandments, in such a way that the whole of the worlds constitutes a human stature (I. 6).”[35]

Above, Levinas illustrates how for in kabbalistic cosmogony, and for R. Hayyim, the vast Mystery of Ein Soph clothes Itself in the various material forms in the world. Levinas also points out the immense ethical imperative which our “exceptional place” in the cosmos engenders. He writes, “Everything depends on him who is at the bottom, in contact with the matter on which his actions are carried out.” This is because, “Man has an affinity with all levels of the real.”[36] Each organ and tendon of our body for the ethical kabbalist compels us to perform a moral action related to the specific function of that organ. This is the incredible ethical consequence of the unnameable Mystery clothing itself in its diverse human forms. The incredible responsibility which this idea evokes can only be described as ‘fear’. Though many have chosen to translate yirah as awe, there is a definite scary element in our responsibility for the universe. Levinas expresses this eloquently:

“Man is interiority through his responsibility for the universe. The power of God subordinated to responsibility becomes a moral force. Man does not sin against God when he disobeys commandments; he destroys worlds. He ‘pleases God’ when he does obey because he reinforces and illuminates the being of the ‘worlds’… Man’s deeds count before God because they engage others. The fear of God is the fear for others.”[37] [yirah]

The specific terms which Levinas uses to describe this idea in his philosophical writings are “the trace” and “the face”. Levinas writes: “A trace is sketched out and effaced in a face in the equivocation of a saying. In this way it modulates the modality of the transcendent.”[38] Here, Levinas is clearly referring to that trace of the unnameable which is left in our finite experiences of the world which we can see hinted at in other people’s faces. It is also the notion of this trace which, for Levinas, calls us to ethical action: “The trace lights up as the face of a neighbor, ambiguously him before whom (or to whom, without any paternalism) and him for whom I answer.”[39] Thus the Lurianic partsuf is equivilant to the Levinasian “face,” and “…the reshimu, is equivalent to the Levinasian trace.”[40] The trace of the infinite unknowable God is seen in the face of our neighbor.

As for the kabbalistic terminology of “sefirot,” which Levinas does not address, R. Hayyim himself does not generally utilize[41] this terminology. Ajzenstat points out that “The partsufim are a new way of describing the ten sefirot.[42] Also, after a cogent analysis Ajzenstat proposes that, “…Levinas has little use for the sefirotic symbolization so prone to being (mis)understood as an ontology. But his rejection can also be described as a reinterpretation, such that if the Sefirot appear at all in his work it is in the form of earthly partzufim, the face of the partzuf appearing as the phenomenological the face of the other…”[43]

Perhaps, however, the reason Levinas does not use the sephirotic symbols is precisely because they may foster an overly immanent perception of the Godhead which may, as mentioned before, lead to immorality. This would also explain why R. Hayyim refrains from addressing the sephirot in the bulk of his work. This reasoning is supported by Levinas’s reference to the follow idea which was mentioned in the quote above from Nefesh ha-Hayyim 3:6. He writes,

“All is equal in the omnipresence of God. All is divine. All is permitted. But God who is everywhere, excluding differences from creature, is also God who is nowhere. On its own, the thought of En-Sof, of the Infinite, the height of religiousity, is also its abyss. The thought of En-Sof, when it is fully understood, leading outside and beyond the Torah which suggests it (III.3,) is the impossibility of the religious idea of God. We must therefore make space for the religion of Elohim, for the Law of the Torah, ‘for the God associated with the worlds in their differences’ and for our access to God in the light of the incatenation of worlds (III. 6,7)”[44]

The use of the terms “face,” “trace” and “worlds” is able to avoid the mistake of approaching the divine, which is actually immanent, in a way which would inevitably lead to a de-sacrilization of the law of the Torah.

A Distaste for Hasidic Ecstatic Union

Though both R. Hayyim and Levinas seem to accept kabbalistic ideology, they are both extremely wary of the possible dangers inherent in the kabbalistic idea of the ecstatic union which was so popular in Hasidic circles. In Magid’s words “R. Hayyim utilizes the same ideological foundation as Hasidism, namely the mystical literature of the Zohar and the kabbalistic/pietistic literature of the Safed mystics of the 16th century. Yet, R. Hayyim uses this kabbalistic literature as a polemic against Hasidic devotional ideology.”[45] According to Levinas, Nefesh ha-Hayyim “is aware of this temptation to go above the ethical. At least, it perceives it in the excesses of Hasidism.”[46] By the “excesses of Hasidism” Levinas is referring to the idea of ecstatic mystical union (devekut) whose consequence is a fully immanent God, and pantheism. This pantheism is for both R. Hayyim and Levinas equivalent to idolatry. Magid confirms this perceived equation between pantheism and idolatry in Nefesh ha-Hayyim when he writes “any attempt to experience his [Ein Soph’s] revealed state is tantamount to blasphemy.”[47]

In his philosophy, Levinas is also wary of the danger of mystical union, and the problems it poses. In Time and the Other, Levinas writes:

“In thus going back to the ontological root of solitude I hope to glimpse wherein this solitude can be exceeded. Let me say at once what this exceeding will not be. It will not be a knowledge, because through knowledge, whether on wants it or not, the object is absorbded by the subject and duality disappears. It will not be ecstasis, because in ecstasis the subject is absorbed in the object and recovers itself in its unity. All these relationships result in the disappearance of the other…Before the death that will be mystery and not necessarily nothingness, the absorption of one term by the other does not come about. I shall show finally how the duality evinced in death becomes the relationship with the other and time.”[48]

For Levinas, devekut, or ecstatic union is a philosophical problem because in this state, the subject is completely “absorbed in the object” resulting in “the disappearance of the other.” Levinas rather wishes to move towards “a pluralism that does not merge into unity…”[49]

Ajzenstat sums the aversion which both Levinas and R. Hayyim share for devekut, which was popular in many strains of Kabbalah and specifically Hasidism in the following statement:

“This is not to say that the goal of the kabbalists is to reattain or recreate the pre-tsimtsum state, although this is the Hasidic interpretation of Luria…the Hasidic goal, ‘refers to the reuniting of all things, transcending their particularity and separation and achieving the universal relatedness that is the true nature of existence; it also refers to the reunion with God…’ Moreover, the Hasidim also strive for ayin, nothingness, self-annihilation…In short, the Hasidim have a unitive interpretation of Luria, and their union is the kind of union that Levinas regards as inauthentic and totalizing: they strive for the annihilation of alterity and autonomy in the oneness of everything with God…For Vital, the human goal is not to return to primal unity, but to finish creation as it was meant to be, that is by means of the study of Torah…To repair the anthropos and the Sefirot is to repair the vessels of particularity; the lurianic goal is right differentiation and right relation.”[50]

Union Permitted During Study and Prayer?

Despite the above discussion of the shared disgust on the part of Levinas and R. Hayyim for devekut, it would seem that for both of them as well, there are some situations in which a certain manner of mystical union is permissible. In Nefesh ha-Hayyim, R. Hayyim formulates the notion that it is precisely during prayer and study that we should be aware of the dual nature of God as both filling and surrounding all the worlds. He writes,

“‘One must be very cautious not to direct one's attention in prayer to any sephirah, even to the root of its emanation. Not only that, one should refrain from any focus on any sephirah or celestial power, for such worship is not to the True God (Elohei Emet) and is ‘cutting the shoots’, God forbid ... this is true not only in prayer but also in the proper act of Torah study... one should intend to bind his, pure heart in prayer only to the infinite God (Makomo Shel Olam), Eyn Sof, Blessed be he who fills all the worlds and upon whom it is said ‘there is no place void of Him’’.”[51] [cf. NH 166, 3:8]

Magid rightly points out in regard to this statement that: “It is interesting to note the way in which R. Hayyim attempts to play both sides of the argument. He stresses that the sole focus of study and prayer be to the trans-experiential Eyn Sof and then proceeds to describe Him as the immanent God who fills all the worlds…”[52] However,perhaps this is precisely where Magid misunderstands Hayyim’s formulation- the Ein Soph is the immanent God. This is because when we unite with this Ein Soph in unio mystica we realize that this God is in us—we become the Other. This is the perspective of both Levinas and R. Hayyim, but this form of mystical union mitzido is only permitted during certain activities.

R. Hayyim says regarding the shma prayer that, “…in the unification of the first paragraph…in the word ‘one’ (ehad) it is seemly for the true worshipper to direct theirself to the holiness of His Thought, which is the Holy Blessed Name ‘from his side’ (mitzido), [one should contemplate that] God is literally one, even in all of the creations He is simple unity as before the creation.”[53] Though we saw earlier that R. Hayyim thinks that it is not permitted to meditate on this “perfect unity” mitzido, it is apparent that during certain times, namely during recitation of the first paragraph of the shma we may try to assume this perspective in a limited manner.

To reiterate, God from ‘His side’ may also be approached during study. Magid affirms that the perspective of God mitzido can be accessed during study in another passage:

“While remaining true to the metaphysical structure (but not the experiential consequences) of Luria and his disciples regarding mitzvot other than talmud torah, R. Hayyim suggests that talmud torah as a devotional act circumvents the cosmic realm of sacred space and puts the scholar in direct contact (albeit non-mystically) with the Eyn Sof or Eternal God. This notion, aptly coined by Norman Lamm as the ‘trans-Azilut’ character of talmud torah requires elaboration.”[54]

Ajzenstat also affirms this idea adeptly:

The untrained knowledge of divine immanence is a vehicle for hubris. If one becomes aware of divine immanence but remains ignorant in other ways, one will almost certainly begin to regard the Torah and the halachah as excess baggage…For Hayim, Torah study was mystical union: the highest spiritual goal was…Torah Lishmah: this study…was…devekut. But Hayim was uneasy about the Hasidic idea of union without study; too easy union is, as he saw it, a dangerous delusion; like too easy immanence, it leads at best to relativization of the Halakha and at worst immorality.”[55]

It is clear from the above discussion that though R. Hayyim accepted mystical union during study and prayer, this perspective is what Hayyim (and also Levinas) want to avoid in any other context apart from prayer and study. Perhaps this is to emphasize that we may only attempt to view God mitzido in service of the ethical.

Levinas demonstrates the respect he has for R. Hayyim’s approach to study when he proclaims that: “The Talmudic study whose spiritual primacy they asserted was not limited for them to any acquisition of knowledge: it was the life of the Torah itself, the principle of creation, the object of the contemplative life, the participation in the highest form of life.”[56]

Perhaps Levinas recognizes that Torah study mitzido is inherently in service of the ethical when he writes:

“The attributes of God are given not in the indicative, but in the imperative. The knowledge of God comes to us like a commandment, like a Mitzvah. To know God is to know what must be done. Here education—obedience to the other will—is the supreme instruction: the knowledge of this Will which is itself the basis of all reality.”[57]

The forum of learning is precisely the time when a mystical union is accepted, because it is here where we can the divine Will, and the ethical imperative which drives this Will that under-girds (or hypostasizes) reality. Talmud torah is unique in that it neutralizes the idolatrous danger of immanence and devekut because it participates directly in the pre-emanated divine Will in service of the ethical. According to R. Hayyim “ …there is no need for devekut at all! The act of study itself is bound (davuk) to His Will and His words. And God Himself, His Will and His words are One!!’”[58]

Kabbalistic Musar as a Means of Identification

From the above discussion, the extent to which Levinas drew on the kabbalistic musar of R. Hayyim of Volozhin is readily apparent. They share the idea of the Mysterious Other whose trace somehow remains in this world. They also share a dedication to the primacy of the ethical, and therefore a distrust for the idea of mystical ecstasis. Though it is not perfectly clear whether Levinas shared R. Hayyim’s affirmation that prayer was an opportunity for mystical union, he clearly approved of R. Hayyim’s statement that a form of union may be achieved during study. Perhaps, therefore, we may postulate that this is the reason that Levinas makes the following statement regarding R. Hayyim’s ethical kabbalistic model in the context of contemporary Jews finding a theological grounding in ethics and a means of identification:

“But this absolute and unshakable sense of identity, which is founded on an adherence that pre-exists any form of allegiance, is not expressed in uncontrollable terms, as being a subject that is stirred by unfathomable feelings. On the contrary, it is alien to any sense of introspection or complacency. Instead of just paying attention to the outside world, it exhibits a perpetual attentiveness that is exclusive and monotheist. It listens and obeys like a guard who never expects to be relieved [releve]. This was recognized by Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner, the favourite disciple of the Gaon of Vilna, when, in 1824, in the Nefesh ha'Hayyim (a work little known in the West but one in which the living elements of Judaism converge), he wrote that a Jew is accountable and responsible for the whole edifice of creation. There is something that binds and commits [engage] man still more than the salvation of his soul. The act, word and thought of a Jew have the formidable privilege of being able to destroy and restore whole worlds. Far from being a serene self-presence, therefore, Jewish identity is rather the patience, fatigue and numbness of a responsibility - a stiff neck that supports the universe.”[59]

Jewish ethical monotheism, for Levinas, is expressed in the philosophy of R. Hayyim which affirms the grave accountability and responsibility which we have “for the whole edifice of creation.” The ethical imperative placed on the shoulders of the Jew by her power to create and destroy worlds in this ideology is certainly scary and “formidable,” and may perhaps serve as an interesting creative interpretation on the formulaic notion that the Jews are the ‘chosen people’—we, a people often made fun of for being ‘guilt ridden’ are chosen because we choose to see the frightening import, the burden which our actions have on the entire edifice of creation.

Finally, I would like to conclude this essay with a quote from Moshe Cordovero, which seems so similar in essence to the one by Levinas which began this essay. Perhaps the reader will now see the resonances in Cordovero’s words to the words of Levinas:

This is what is meant by ‘its end is wrapped up in its beginning and its beginning in its end [Sefer Yetzirah]’—that Keter is in Malchut and Malchut is in Keter. But not only this, however, even Malchut which is in Keter returns and descends downwards…and in everything the end is wrapped in the beginning and the beginning in the end, and this is the secret of the Tetragrammaton both backwards and forwards… [trans. mine].”[60]

[1] Levinas, Emmanuel. Time and the Other. Trans. Richard Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, 1987. (Henceforth T.O.), pp. 64- 65.

[2] T.O., p. 41. He says, “Let me say at once what this exceeding will not be. It will not be a knowledge, because through knowledge, whether on wants it or not, the object is absorbed by the subject and duality disappears. It will not be ecstasis, because in ecstasis the subject is absorbed in the object and recovers itself in its unity. All these relationships result in the disappearance of the other…”

[3] For examples see: Ajzenstat, Oona. Driven Back to the Sources: The Premodern Sources of Levinas’s Postmodernism, “The Kabbalah and Deconstruction.” Duquesne University Press 2001. pp. 139-199 (Henceforth DBTS); Chalier, Catherine, "L'ame de la vie: Levinas, lecteur de R. Haim de Volozin," in Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: Editions de l'Herne, 1991), pp. 387-398; Moses, Stephane "L'idee de l'infini en nous," in Repondre d’autrui: Emmaniel Levinas (Boudry-Neuchatel (Suisse): Editions se la Baconniere, 1989), pp. 41-51; and Mopsik, Charles. "La pensee d'Emmanuel Levinas et la cabale," in Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: Editions de l'Herne, 1991), pp. 378-386. Apart from some influence of R. Chaim of Volozhin, Mopsik in particular denies that kabbalistic texts have anything more than a marginal importance for Levinas' work.

[4] Ajzenstat, Oona. Driven Back to the Sources: The Premodern Sources of Levinas’s Postmodernism, “The Kabbalah and Deconstruction.” Duquesne University Press 2001. pp. 147-148. (DBTS)

[5] Magid, Shaul. “Deconstructing the Mystical: The Anti-Mystical Kabbalism in Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh Ha-Hayyim.” From The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, Vol. 9, 1999, p. 25.

[6] DBTS p. 193

[7] DBTS p. 177

[8] DBTS p. 170

[9] Magid p. 51

[10] Magid p. 51

[11] DBTS p. 173

[12] Magid, p. 25.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Magid p. 33

[15] Nefesh Ha-Hayyim (NH) pp. 162-165, III:7-9. See also: Levinas, E. “’In the Image of God,’ According to Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner,” Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures trans. Gary D. Mole (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1994) (henceforth BTV) p. 166. Here, Levinas says: “It is here that Nefesh ha’Hayyim has recourse to the ancient idea of Kabbalistic speculation: the idea of the ‘originary contraction’ of the Divine, the idea of Tsimtsum. Through this idea the Kabbalah resolved the antimony between God’s omnipresence and the being of creature outside God. God first contracts himself from creation in order to make space, next to self, for something other than self. In an original way, Nefesh ha’Hayyim understands this Tsimtsum as a gnoseological event…”

[16] See Nefesh ha-Hayyim p. 162 “For they [tzimtzum and kav, transcendent and immanent, the named and the un-nameable, mitzido and mitzideinu] are in essence completely one aspect and one matter.” [trans. mine] Also see: Magid pp. 46-47: “Invoking the midrashic notion in Genesis Rabba that God exists in this world yet is not limited by it, R. Hayyim argues, as did others before him, that using the term makom for God allows us to embrace God’s immanence and transcendence simultaneously.” [on beg. of part III of NH]

[17] Ibid. Also see: Magid pp. 46-47.

[18] DBTS p. 177

[19] Magid p. 35

[20] Magid p. 35

[21] BTV p. 162

[22] Nefesh ha-Hayyim p. 160, III:6.

[23] BTV p. 162

[24] As R. Hayyim calls it in Nefesh ha-Hayyim. He equates Elohim with the Sefirot, and the Tetragrammaton with Ein Soph.

[25] T.O. p. 46

[26] Levinas, E. Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonse Lingis, Duquesne University Press Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998, p. 7 (Henceforth OBBE).

[27] T.O. p. 48

[28] DBTS p. 179

[29] BTV p. 164

[30] BTV p. 163

[31] DBTS pp. 178-179

[32] DBTS pp. 178-179

[33] T.O. p. 75

[34] BTV p. 158

[35] BTV p. 158

[36] BTV p. 158

[37] BTV p. 162

[38] OBBE p. 12

[39] OBBE p. 12

[40] DBTS pp. 179-180

[41] The sephirot are however discussed briefly in Nefesh ha-Hayyim pp. 102-103 (particularly in the gloss). It is apparent there however, that the sephirot are just another formulation of the worlds.

[42] DBTS p. 176

[43] DBTS p. 184

[44] BTV p. 166

[45] Magid, Shaul. “Deconstructing the Mystical: The Anti-Mystical Kabbalism in Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh Ha-Hayyim.” From The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, Vol. 9, 1999, p. 24.

[46] BTV p. 166

[47] Magid p. 34. Also Magid writes the following: (p. 27), “Hasidic immanentism is unique in that it carries significant epistemological implications as the source for the experiential notion of devekut which R. Hayyim rejects.” And on p. 40: “R. Hayyim reiterates time and time again that a verifiable experience of God as immanent would nullify the possibility of Torah and mitzvoth .” (cf. BTV p. 156, NH 9, p. 168, NH III:14, p. 185, NH III:8, pp. 154, 155)

[48] T.O. p. 41

[49] T.O. p. 42 (also cf. D.F. p. 16 for Levinas’s assertion that pantheism may be a form of idol worship)

[50] DBTS p. 191. See also DBTS p. 198: “The Mitnagdim had reasons for taking their Kabbalah underground, and so does Levinas. It is as true today as it was in the nineteenth century that the open promulgation of kabbalistic doctrines seems to offer a healing or a cleaving that is too easy and that will undermine halachah and Torah study, not to mention the use of one’s rational faculties and one’s understanding of ethics.”

[51] Magid pp. 58-59 [quoting NH III:14, p. 183]

[52] Magid p. 59

[53] Nefesh ha-Hayyim p. 166, III:8.

[54] Magid p. 62

[55] DBTS pp. 196-197

[56] Levinas, E. “’In the Image of God,’ According to Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner,” Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures trans. Gary D. Mole (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1994), p. 152.

[57] D.F. pp. 17-18. Also see D.F. p. 19: “The law for the Jew is never a yoke. It carries its own joy, which nourishes a religious life and the whole of Jewish mysticism.

[58] NH IV:10, p. 221 [trans. Magid p. 63]

[59] D.F. pp. 50-51

[60] Cordovero, Moshe. Pardes Rimmonim. P. 75a, Gate 15 “From Below to Above.” [trans. mine]

About me

Previous posts



ATOM 0.3