[Avodah] Is Panentheism Heresy?

Micha Berger micha at aishdas.org
Thu Jan 10 13:40:28 PST 2013

On Wed, Jan 02, 2013 at 10:56:26AM -0500, Prof. Levine wrote:
> From http://tinyurl.com/bah5lbo

I know, 8 days is an eternity in email-list time.

> 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.

Iz nisht azoi pashut to assume the Gra himself didn't believe in

We discussed the machloqes about the nature of tzimtzum way back in the
early days of the list, and again about 6 years back.

The Baal haTanya holds that tzimtzum is an illusion. It's the *apparent*
absence of the Ein Sof Himself that makes it possible for the other to
exist. But the existence of others is itself an illusion.

According to the Litvisher understanding of the Gra (the LR's take on the
Gra aside), the Gra taught that there was an actual tzimtzum, but of the
Retzon Hashem, not of HQBH Himself. Thus, G-d is unchanging, but the world
is a relative "vacuum" of Divine Will. See Michtav meiEliyahu, vol 5, pp.

Notice this places the machloqes on two issues -- both verb and noun. The
Ba'al haTanya's tzitzum is only in how it looks to us, and his noun is
the Ein Sof. REED's version of the Gra has the verb as being an actual
"contraction", but the noun is of Retzon H'.

According to this, the Gra was also panentheist -- the universe is of G-d,
but not directly of His Will. Existence is the fact that we act according
to our own rules rather than a direct expression of his Ratzon. (I say
"direct", just as I earlier said "relative vacuum", because it is His
Will that we not simply do what He would have. That both natural law
and our ability to defy moral law means that it takes time for His goal
to emerge.)

R Masmid wrote of R' Dessler's position to the LR (he had been a guest
of REED's), to which there is a letter in reply written in 5699.

The LR believed REED played down the machloqes to the point of
misinterpreting the Gra. (It's unclear he knew whose opinion he was
critiquing.) According to the LR, the Gra held of tzimtzum kepeshuto --
meaning tzimtzum actually occured, and involved the Atzumus of the Ein
Sof. This is highly problematic as it seems to be saying that creation
constituted a change in HQBH Himself.

However, the LR adds that R' Chaim Volozhiner (Nefesh haChaim 3:7)
disagreed with the Gra and sidered with the tzimtzum-as-illusion.
REED explains the Gra's words in a way that doesn't require
assuming a machloqes of such magnitude between rebbe and
talmid. Also, if you look at the first kelal of the Gra's 10 kelalim
<http://www.hashkafacircle.com/Asarah_Klalim.pdf>, you'll see that the
Gra /defines/ the entire enterprise of the Ari's Qabbalah as being about
describing Ratzon, hashgachah, and Hashem's Actions. So anything he says
on the subject can't be about the Ein Sof Itself. KNLAD.

(This kelal of the Gra appears to dovetail Lurianic Qabbalah with the
Rambam's position on describing Hashem's attributes. The Rambam says
that all "attributes" are either descriptions of what He isn't, or of
how He acts. The Gra allows the Ari to fit that, by placing the entire
discussion in terms of how He acts.)

And REED doesn't seem to be alone in understanding the Gra this way.
When R' Tzadoq discusses who holds of the problematic idea of tzimtzum
kepeshuto of the Ein Sof (Seifer Zikhronos 3:13) he mentions the
Yosher Leivav. Including the Gra would have been so obvious if he
thought it was appropriate, I cannot believe R' Tzadoq had the LR's
understanding fo the Gra.

The way I personally read NhC 3:2,4,7, it seems to me RCV held of the
concept the REED attributes to the Gra -- actual tzimtzum of His Will,
and (although I don't see this in REED) that causes an apparent tzimtzum
of His Essence. And it might not be "causes" as much as two descriptions
of one idea. I see 3:7 the same way the LR did (yay me!) but given
3:2 and 3:4, I do not take this as a complete description.

Another diference between REED's description and the LR's is on the noun
plane. R' Dessler discusses the tzimtzum of Retzon H', the LR gives the
two options as Ein Sof and Or Ein Sof. I'm not sure Ratzon and Or refer
to identical concepts.

So, as I said, it seems to me that the Gra too did not believe in Hashem's
literal tzimtzum, and therefore existence is of Him -- albeit not His
Will or perhaps not His Or Ein Sof. But in any case, panentheism.

Tir'u baTov!

Micha Berger             I long to accomplish a great and noble task,
micha at aishdas.org        but it is my chief duty to accomplish small
http://www.aishdas.org   tasks as if they were great and noble.
Fax: (270) 514-1507                              - Helen Keller

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