KOSCHITZKY VIRTUAL BEIT MIDRASH (VBM)
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
Paradox of Divine Omnipresence and Human Independence
Grossman introduces his fine discussion of this topic with a
contrast between two kabbalistic conceptions. Kabbalists teach that God constricted
Himself (tzimtzum) to enable the world to come into existence. How should we understand this
constriction? Some understand the
term literally; thus, they adopt a viewpoint in which God transcends the
world. Others explain
tzimtzum more allegorically; in truth, God’s immanence remains
omnipresent. Chassidim are more
likely to stress divine immanence, whereas Mitnagdim highlight God’s
transcendence. Grossman contends
that R. Zadok’s exposure to both mitnagdic and chassidic thought helped bring
him to a worldview that attempts to navigate between these two positions.
Indeed, R. Zadok maintains a constant dialectical tension between two
perspectives. From one perspective,
God is everywhere and everything.
From this standpoint, humans lack independent existence as well as free
choice. If God orchestrates every
act, freedom loses any meaning.
Moreover, mitzvot lose their meaning as divine command assumes the
reality of independent subjects.
The other perspective thinks of God as separate from the created order
while ruling over it. While this
viewpoint limits divinity, it opens up a place for human freedom, human
initiative, and mitzvot.
This divide finds expression in many aspects of our tradition. The first two verses of Shema, recited
twice daily, convey this duality.
“Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord
is One” emphasizes absolute divine unity.
In truth, everything is God.
The second verse speaks of “kevod malkhuto,” the glory of God’s
kingdom. Monarchy depends upon
subjects with independent existence.
most basic names for God express the identical themes. God’s essential name is the
tetragrammaton but we pronounce it as A-donai. The word as spelled, comes from the verb
“haya” (to be) and teaches God’s overwhelming existence. The pronounced name instructs us
about His kingship as “adon” means master.
The two types of Torah hearken back to the same split. All of the Written Law comes from God in
a form of great clarity. No lasting
halakhic debates occur in the pages of the Written Law. The Oral Law, on the other hand,
reflects human input. Only the
latter includes endless debates with many positions on a myriad of issues. This represents a perspective which
allows for multiplicity as opposed to simple divine unity. At the same time, the multiple opinions
ultimately stem from God. As the
gemara says, “both these and those are the words of the living God”
Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah at Sinai) provides examples
of the ongoing tension. From the
perspective of absolute unity, humanity lacks existence independent from
God. Therefore, the gemara
(Shabbat 88b) says that the Jewish people’s souls departed with every
dibbur (divine utterance).
Encountering the awesome presence of God, they recognize the truth about
omnipresent divinity and lose their autonomous existence. For this reason, God says: “No man
can see Me and live” (Shemot 33:20). A clear viewpoint of this “upper unity”
dissolves human existence. At
Sinai, God restored their souls and retuned them to the other way of looking at
the world, a viewpoint in which humanity has a place.
Zadok finds many other aspects of our tradition that exhibit the same divide,
including the difference between the mikdash (the Temple) and the
mishkan (the Tabernacle), the debates between Beit Shammai
and Beit Hillel, and the differing religious modes
of Yaakov Avinu and Yosef Ha-tzaddik.
Prayer and Torah study divide along these lines. Prayer reflects the awareness that
everything depends upon God. In
contrast, Torah generates a sense of human independence. A scholar need not turn to God for
guidance every time a question comes up.
Instead, the Torah provides a framework for the sages to work out answers
on their own. At the same time, the authentic scholar
understands that this wisdom truly originates with God. The Torah is somehow both “Torat
Hashem” and “Torah dilei,” the scholar’s Torah.
As mentioned in an earlier shiur, realizing God’s role in the
human achievement of wisdom becomes part of the essential definition of the Oral
Law. R. Zadok uses this point to
distinguish between the Oral Law and Gentile wisdom. Both reflect human effort and thought,
but only the Jewish sages understand that all wisdom comes from God. In fact, the difficulties in arriving at
this realization constitute the essential test (nissayon) of the Oral
different gemarot call for integrating these two perspectives either by
praying in the location where one studies or by learning in the place of prayer
(Berakhot 8a, Megilla 29a).
According to R. Zadok, this means realizing that, even as we put in our
effort (“hishtadlut”), we should understand that the effort also comes
from God. Conversely, when we
successfully realize that everything comes from God, that recognition itself is
the product of hishtadlut.
The absolute unity outlook leads to a radical reinterpretation of
repentance. We traditionally think
of teshuva as acknowledging wrongdoing, regretting sin, and resolving to
do better in the future. However,
R. Zadok suggests a completely different alternative. The highest form of repentance,
repentance out of love, means understanding how every act is orchestrated by
God. That means that even one’s
sins were truly the will of God.
Through accepting that reality, we convert sins into merits. Appreciating God’s hand in all of human
history brings about the prophetic promise: “If your sins are like scarlet, they
will whiten as snow.”
Such an outlook explains the idea of the scapegoat, the se’ir
la-azazel. Why do we cast a
goat off the cliff to its death on the rocks below? Furthermore, doing so seemingly
constitutes a violation of the prohibition not to offer a sacrifice outside of
Even worse, someone could view this
ritual as a sacrifice to demonic forces.
For R. Zadok, the above questions explain the entire point. On the Day of Atonement, we engage in an
act that has sin written all over it because it reflects God’s commanding
will. This symbolizes the higher
form of teshuva, a repentance that realizes that every act comes from
This contrasts with repentance out of fear. For R. Zadok, fear of God builds upon
the perspective that sees God as a king distinct from his subjects. Such repentance works with the classic
understanding that builds upon regret and resolve. R. Zadok notes an important difference
between the two forms of teshuva.
Repentance due to fear relates to each sin separately. Repentance out of love, on the other
hand, addresses the totality of a person’s sins. Once we fully assimilate the idea that
all actions come from God, no easy task, we engage in repentance for a lifetime
of sins simultaneously.
Zadok views this as a higher form of repentance that overcomes all
barriers. The Zohar states that
repentance is ineffective for certain sins. R. Zadok contends that this statement
refers only to lower-level repentance. The repentance that sees every act as the
will of God can convert any sin into merits.
Obviously, this idea has the dangerous potential for justifying
antinomianism. Any selfish sinner
can act immorally, arguing all along that it represents the will of God. R. Zadok insists that we can only adopt
this perspective after the fact. At
the time of each act, we focus on the perspective in which human choice and
initiative impacts on the world.
Form that standpoint, we lack any right to violate divine command. The mekoshesh etzim who
desecrated the Sabbath in the desert erred in precisely this fashion. He functioned with the assumption that
all is divine will instead of focusing on human freedom. R. Zadok also attributes Elisha ben
Avuya’s apostasy to thinking that the “upper unity” renders the commandments
How can two contradictory perspectives be true? R. Zadok argues that only God knows how
to unify opposites. He frequently
cites from the Ari’s Arba Me’ot Shekel Kessef. “In the place of [divine] knowledge,
there is no freedom; in the place of freedom, there is no [divine]
knowledge.” R. Zadok sometimes
states that both ideas reflect a truth and only God knows how the two can
achieve reconciliation. On other occasions, he seems to divide
between our world and the World to Come.
This world, the alma de’shikra (the world of
falsehood), creates the illusion of entities and effort independent of God. The future existence reveals the truth
that everything is God. We
currently pronounce the tetragrammaton with the word “A-donai,” but in
the messianic era, we will ultimately pronounce the word as it is written
Some passages depict this realization as the essential goal of
religious life. He contends that
the root of the entire Torah is the realization that everything is divine
providence and that the world includes no happenstance. For R. Zadok, sin and happenstance go
together. In the context of
describing a wayward nation, the Torah speaks about walking with God
“be-keri” (Vayikra 26:21).
Onkelos translates “keri” as harshness or a hardening of the
heart. R. Zadok explains that it
comes from the word “mikreh,” chance. True sin emerges when we fail to see
God’s dominant role in the world.
In fact, this reflects the workings of midda ke-negged midda. God brings about every action, including
the transgressions; if we deny God’s role, He attributes to us full
responsibility in accordance with our approach.
Amalek, symbolic of the most deeply rooted evil for R. Zadok, stands
for happenstance. Allusions to
“mikreh” occur repeatedly in biblical depictions of Amalek. Regarding Amalek, the Torah says:
“asher karekha ba-derekh” (Devarim 25:18). The phrase “asher karahu” appears
twice in Megillat Esther (4:7. 6:13) because the enemy, Haman, descends
from Amalek. Even the word
“kes” (Shemot 17:16) points to the same theme. According to R. Zadok, the word
“kiseh” alludes to God’s royal throne and the aleph indicates the
singular God. Since Amalek denies
God’s role, the aleph disappears.
another passage, R. Zadok contends that all of the esoteric wisdom of ma’aseh
bereishit and ma’aseh merkava comes to teach us about the “upper
unity.” Clearly, R. Zadok thought
this a central Jewish theme.
During the previous twenty-seven shiurim I have written for
this series, I have tried to analyze and understand the ideas of various
rabbinic luminaries without spending much time critiquing them. I will deviate from this norm in the
Zadok is willing to live with a paradox, a contradiction that affirms human
independence and freedom even as it denies them. Is this approach truly necessary? Rival notions of divine providence avoid
denying human independence and freedom.
What forces R. Zadok to affirm omnipresence in a way that diminishes
freedom and autonomy? A Judaism
that resists affirming contradictory statements seems
critic might respond that almost all traditional Jews accept an analogous
contradiction. After all, we
believe in both divine foreknowledge and human freedom. However, the analogy between the two
dilemmas breaks down. In one case,
we affirm A and B while struggling to figure out how they can coexist. Answers have been suggested. For example, some claim that since God
transcends the bounds of time, the two ideas no longer contradict each
other. R. Zadok’s contradiction, on
the other hand, simultaneously affirms both A and not A. In such a paradox, we can form no
conception of what a resolution might look like.
am also concerned with the determinism implicit in R. Zadok’s view. Complex philosophical Issues cannot be
analyzed in a single paragraph, but suffice it to say that determinism calls
into question the meaningfulness of life, the value of Torah and mitzvot,
the coherence of reward and punishment, and the value of effort. R. Shagar, z”l, argues that R.
Zadok’s viewpoint might actually enable a person to try harder. Someone who adopts this view can finally
accept themselves for who they are and function accordingly. While R. Shagar’s point has some truth,
accepting oneself can easily become an excuse for continuing wrongdoing with no
authentic attempt to change. Again,
other conceptions affirm divine governance without denying human