[Avodah] Is Panentheism Heresy?

Prof. Levine llevine at stevens.edu
Wed Jan 2 07:56:26 PST 2013

 From http://tinyurl.com/bah5lbo

After an impostor posing as the Vilna Gaon's son claimed that his 
"father" had reversed his negative evaluation of Chassidus, the 
elderly sage issued a letter in 1796 denying a change of heart. After 
the authenticity of this letter was questioned, the Vilna Gaon in 
1797 issued another letter detailing his problems with the movement. 
The letter was circulated and published the next year in the Slutzker 
Maggid's book and many times since. I take it from Mordechai 
Willensky's Chassidim U-Misnagdim (Mossad Bialik, 2nd ed. vol. 1 p. 
187ff.). In the middle of his list of accusations against Chassidim, 
written in flowery rabbinic Hebrew, the Vilna Gaon states (p. 188, in 
loose translation):

Oh how the generation lifted its eyes and spoke words directed above: 
"This is your god, Israel" (Ex. 32:8), every tree and rock. They 
reveal the Torah contrary to law in the verse: "Blessed is the glory 
of God from His place" (Ez. 3:12) and in the verse: "And you preserve 
them all" (Ne. 9:6).

As Willensky points out in his footnotes, these are accusations of 
heresy. The Vilna Gaon charges Chassidim with believing in 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism>panentheism, that God is 
present in everything, even inanimate objects. The Tanya (2:Yichud 
Ve-Emunah:1) states that God is present in inanimate objects and in 
this next chapter explains Ne. (9:6) similarly. It also explains 
(1:42) Ez. (3:12) in this manner.

It is not clear how the Vilna Gaon knew the contents of the as-yet 
unpublished Tanya. Historians suggest he saw an unpublished draft or 
an early printing. It is irrelevant because his understanding of 
Chabad philosophy was confirmed by the Ba'al Ha-Tanya. In an undated 
letter, first published in 1857 and then many times since, the Ba'al 
Ha-Tanya explains his philosophical disagreement with the Vilna Gaon.


We see that the Ba'al Ha-Tanya accepts the Vilna Gaon's description 
of his views as panentheism. However, he defends this theological 
view as authentically Jewish while the Vilna Gaon rejects them as heresy.

In particular, the Ba'al Ha-Tanya portrays himself as the defender of 
tradition and the Vilna Gaon as the radical philosopher, the 
innovative theologian trying to determine on his own the nature of God

See the above URL for the entire post.

Yitzchok Levine 
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