The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Introduction To The Thought Of Rav Nachman Of
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Lecture 25: Dispute (part V)
Dispute and The Empty Space
By Rav Itamar Eldar
Following four shiurim in which we have attempted to survey
R. Nachman's position regarding dispute, the time has come to return to teaching
no. 64. In the fourth section of that teaching, R. Nachman says as follows:
Know that dispute is an aspect of the creation of the world.
For the creation of the world was primarily by way of the empty space, as
mentioned above. For without that all would have been [His] infinity, and there
would have been no room for the creation of the world, as explained above. For
that reason, [God] contracted the light to the sides, forming an empty space,
and in [that space] He created the world, that is, the days and the
middot, by way of speech, as stated above, "By the word of God, the
heavens were fashioned, etc."
The same is true regarding the aspect of disputes. For had all
the Torah scholars been in agreement, there would have been no room for the
creation of the world. It was only by way of the disputes between them, having
been set apart one from the other, each one pulling himself to a different side
in that way there was formed between them an aspect of the empty space, the
aspect of the contraction of the light to the sides, in which the world was
created through speech, as stated above. For all the words that each of them
speaks, they are all solely for the sake of the creation of the world, that was
fashioned by them in the empty space between them. For the Torah scholars create
everything through their words. As it is written (Yeshayahu 51:16): "And
say to Zion, You are My people" do not read ami ("My people"), but
rather imi ("with Me") just as I formed heaven and earth with words, so
have you done the same.
One must take care, however, not to speak too much, but just
enough for the creation of the world, and no more. For it was because of the
great amount of light, which the vessels were unable to bear, that they broke,
and from the broken vessels the kelipot came into being. So too if one
speaks too much, this causes kelipot to come into being, for it is the
aspect of excessive light, on account of which the vessels broke, causing the
kelipot to come into being. (Likutei Moharan Kama 64,
There are two aspects of this passage that we shall try to
First, we shall examine how this passage relates to what we
have seen thus far regarding R. Nachman's understanding of dispute.
Second, we shall try to understand the specific context of this
teaching which deals with the idea of empty space.
DISPUTE - CREATES THE WORLD
R. Nachman follows the conceptual structure of the Ari z"l with
respect to "empty space" and applies it to dispute. We shall briefly review this
The infinite light of God that fills the entirety of being does
not allow for the creation of a world with clearly defined boundaries. For this
reason, God moved His light to the sides, thus forming an empty space, as it
were, void of His divinity. It was in this empty space that God created the
finite and defined world, for the moment that there exists a space void of God
it is possible to speak of Divine revelation and the emanation of God's light
into the world by degree and at different levels. R. Nachman proceeds from here
and applies this idea to dispute.
R. Nachman contends that a dispute between Torah scholars is
similar to God's removal of the light to the sides, with each party to the
dispute pulling himself in a different direction. This movement results in the
formation of an empty space between the disputants. This empty space allows for
the creation of the world, which is achieved through the words of the disputants
themselves. It is important to note and emphasize that, according to R. Nachman,
the words of the Sages that create the world are not the words that resolve the
dispute, but rather the words of the dispute itself.
A dispute between the Torah scholars is comprised, then, of two
stages. The first stage involves the formation of an empty space, which is
fashioned through the psychological movement of the dispute, in which each party
pulls himself in a different direction. The second stage relates to the words of
the dispute, which, by way of the empty space created through the psychological
movement of the previous stage, are capable of revealing themselves and creating
a world with vessels, definitions, and distinctions.
According to this, the existence of dispute enjoys exceedingly
high status in the thought of R. Nachman. It does not come to repair some
deficiency in the disputed party, as we saw at the beginning of the discussion
of the topic. Nor does it come to repair the disputants themselves or even the
world. R. Nachman is also not dealing here with benefiting the tzadik or
mitigating dispute and the evil yetzer at their root, as we saw in the
previous shiur. According to what R. Nachman says here, dispute is a
necessary condition for the continued existence, and even for the creation, of
The essence of this statement grows out of the parallel that R.
Nachman draws between dispute and the most primary and fundamental movement of
existence, the movement of tzimtzum, "contraction." This comparison says
everything. R. Nachman teaches us that tzimtzum, which from the outside
appears to be a movement of strict judgment, hiding, clash and distancing,
actually prepares the world for the love and bounty that God intends to bestow
upon it. When we see two Torah scholars battling each other, each one attempting
to negate the view of the other, and creating a feeling of separation and
distance each one pulling in the opposite direction we experience the harsh
feeling of judgment and the absence of light. This is just like the feeling we
have when we encounter the world growing out of the empty space, which radiates
a feeling and an existence of the absence of God.
BOTH OPINIONS ARE THE WORD OF THE LIVING GOD
We saw in the previous shiurim that, according to the
Rambam and Rabbeinu Sa'adya Gaon, dispute results from a certain blindness and
the inability to reach the truth. In contradistinction, R. Nachman tries to give
dispute a much more objective dimension.
It is related about the king of the Khazars that he summoned to
his court a Moslem, a Christian, and a Jewish sage, to learn about the three
religions and decide between them. When he was unable to decide, it is told,
he asked each of the sages which one of the other two he prefers from a
theological perspective. When both the Christian and the Moslem answered that
they each prefer the Jew, the Khazar king adopted the Jewish religion.
If we follow the Khazar king's logic and take it one step
further, we can say that when we see two Torah scholars contradicting each
other, we have only to learn from them that the truth is absent from each of
them, and perhaps it is missing altogether.
There is only one truth, and when the world is filled with an
infinite number of opinions and alternatives, a question arises regarding the
very existence of this truth. Just as the empty space raises doubts in us
whether God exists, as we saw in previous sections of the teaching, so dispute
leaves us with a question: is there really such a thing as truth? This
uncertainty, contends R. Nachman, serves as the foundation for the creation of
the world of ideas. The multiplicity, variety, and different possibilities
regarding each idea, cannot grow directly out of the absolute truth that fills
everything and leaves them no room. Only one who frees himself, for a moment,
from the blinding power of the absolute and unified truth even if this
liberation leads to an emptiness that challenges the very existence of an
absolute truth can in just another moment, understand the foundational concept
of Jewish dispute "both opinions are the word of the Living God."
In the infinite world that preceded tzimtzum, it is
impossible to speak of "both opinions are the word of the Living God," for in
the infinite world there is no such thing as "both opinions." The contradictions
and opposites within infinity are swallowed up and unified in one universal
truth that nullifies and causes every boundary to disappear. He whose life is
guided by this truth is unable to distinguish between that which is forbidden
and that which is permitted, between the unclean and the clean, or between the
holy and the mundane. The ability to look upon the two disputants, and see how
the truth hides itself behind each of them and how each opinion reflects a
different side of Divine truth, can only grow out of the uncertainty of the
empty space. This is true in precisely the same manner that the only way that
God can reveal His diversified light in the world passes through the contraction
of His infinity and the formation of an empty space.
As we saw in earlier lectures, an important role falls upon the
Torah Sages to bring out the diversified Divine truth, that which is reflected
in the statement "both opinions are the word of the Living God." Their ability
to present this truth, however, passes through the growth of uncertainty, which
involves a slight removal of this absolute truth. For this reason, their words,
which build and fashion a diversified world out of all the ideas and truths, are
preceded by the psychological movement of each one moving to the side, which
leaves behind a harsh feeling of the absence of truth.
The love that Chazal promise us at the conclusion of the
war between two Torah Sages et vahav be-sufa (Bamidbar 21:14;
"they did not move from there until they became lovers [ohavim]" is not
the resolution of the dispute, but rather the ability to contain both sides of
the uncertainty. This ability grows out of the uncertainty that nests in the
heart when we witness the war that precedes the love. Only one who has
experienced the collapse of the ideological structure that he had fashioned for
himself can look upon the structures of others with a tolerant eye and locate
within them the kernels of truth.
DISPUTE AS THE FOUNDATION FOR THE EXISTENCE OF THE WORLD
It appears to me that this is also the underlying assumption of
the following words of R. Nachman:
And through this they merit universal peace, peace in all the
worlds. And then, when they will merit universal peace, all business activity
will be eliminated from the world. This is because all business activity in the
world stems from a lack of peace. For it is impossible for the will of the
seller and the buyer to be the same; this one wants to sell while the other one
wants to buy. If their wants were the same, it would be impossible to transact
We see, therefore, that all business activity and trade come
only through the concept of strife, when there is no peace between the wills.
This is alluded in (Bereishit 13:7), "Friction existed between the
shepherds of Avram's flocks and the shepherds of Lot's flocks; and the
Cana'anites were living in the land." Cana'an alludes to a trader, as in Rashi's
explanation of the verse (Hoshe-a 12:8): "As for Cana'an, the balances of
deceit are in his hand." In other words, due to the aspect of friction and
strife corresponding to "Friction existed
" through this, the "Cana'anites
were then living in the land" there are traders and business activity in the
But in the future, when there will be wondrous peace in the
world as in, "And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall
lie down with the kid
" then all business activity will be eliminated. As it is
written (Zekharya 14:21): "And the Cana'anites will be no more."
And this is also the aspect of "until people stop walking about
in the street" [literally, "until there is not a regel (foot) in the
marketplace"]. In other words, the mitzva of lighting the Channuka candle
until people stop walking about in the marketplace corresponds to peace, which
comes about through returning the glory until such time as all business activity
is eliminated. Thus, "until people stop walking about in the street" indicates
that there will not remain a regel in the marketplace; because of the
peace, all business activity will have been eliminated, as mentioned above.
(Likutei Moharan Kama 14, 12)
Business activity, trade, and the market place that which
constitutes the foundation of the existence of the material world in which we
live are the result of dispute and the absence of universal peace in the
Economic life and the need for business activity are based on
the conflict of interests between the buyer and seller, employer and employee,
and every set of two people who come into contact with each other. We are
dealing with the most elementary aspect of the world, which existed from the
very first moment of human existence. Already in the Garden of Eden, we
encounter conflict of interests between the woman and the snake, and in a
certain measure, also between the man and the woman. As the population grew, so
grew controversy and the need for business activity. Were it not for the
conflict between the shepherds of Avraham and those of Lot, the land would have
remained desolate. Controversy requires renewed deployment and dividing up of
territory, and all this leads to additional encounters and further dispute.
Business activity is not, however, merely the result of a conflict of interests,
but rather it is the moving force that fashions the world and pushes it forward.
Disputes are constructive; contradictions require the fashioning of complex
systems that will answer the varied and contradictory needs of people, and in
that way the world enjoys continual progress.
R. Nachman is aware of the fact that dispute invigorates the
world, infusing it with the adrenaline of creativity and growth. He is also
aware that the universal peace for which he yearns, is a peace that cannot be
applied in the natural framework within which we live. "And the wolf shall dwell
with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid" constitutes that
universal peace in which the laws of nature are all mixed up, and with them also
the natural law of business activity and dispute.
Until then, contends R. Nachman, we need controversy, it being
the basis for the continued existence of the world. If there is no dispute,
there is no business activity; and if there is no business activity, there is no
movement and flow in the world, and in the absence of movement and flow, death
Dispute, then, is fertile ground for the growth of life, for
the dynamics of renewal, and for the new revelation of wants, concepts and
ideas. The world continues to be built.
DECIDING THE LAW - A TEMPORARY SOLUTION
R. Nachman, however, qualifies his words. Again he is aided by
the kabbalistic model of the Ari z"l (we return now to teaching #64): "One must
take care, however, not to speak too much, but just enough for the creation of
the world, and no more." R. Nachman himself seems to have been frightened by the
absolute legitimacy that he gave to dispute and to the words of controversy.
Words of controversy do in fact build the world and reveal the varied truths of
which it is comprised, but nevertheless one is permitted to speak only as much
as is needed for the creation of the world. Once again the matter is clarified
against the backdrop of the kabbalistic model that R. Nachman uses.
The situation of which R. Nachman speaks is the stage of the
breaking of the vessels. This is the phase when the infinite light first
revealed itself and began to illuminate the empty space in vessels that were
supposed to contain the light and clothe it in concrete garments. The light,
however, was bestowed without hindrance and without limit, and the vessels,
being too small to contain the light, broke.
The light that broke the vessels was the light of the seven
spheres called "the seven ancient kings." Each sphere, that is, each Divine
light, each Divine truth, sought for itself full sovereignty, saying, "I will
rule." The desire of each and every truth to go beyond its measure and achieve
absolute exclusivity led in the end to the breaking of the vessels.
R. Nachman supports the psychological movement that seeks to
negate all other opinions, though the motive must be pure, or in kabbalistic
language, the light must be connected to the world of atzilut
("emanation"). The disputant must feel that his action is one of Divine
influence in the world. He should not seek kingship for himself, or multiply his
words in order to fortify and strengthen his personal standing as a man of
controversy. Divine truth is the objective, and the building of the world
through its revelation is everything. If, therefore, this becomes blurred and
the golem rises up against its maker, dispute will turn from a
constructive process to a destructive one. Arguments also have their
limitations, or in kabbalistic language, the world of vessels cannot contain
infinite dispute and contradiction, even if they contain within them Divine
This approach fits well with the understandings that we reached
in the previous shiurim.
The dispute in holiness is the dispute that is connected to the
knowledge of God, as R. Nachman said in one of the teachings that we have
already seen, in that it reflects the complex Divine truth of reality. R.
Nachman teaches us here that the uncovering of the diversified Divine truth of
"both opinions are the word of the Living God" through dispute, proceeds by way
of the psychological movement of moving to the sides. The dispute in holiness,
i.e., the dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, gives life and creates the
worlds in which we live, those that contain within them the complex truth of
"both opinions are the word of the Living God." The uncertainty and the pain
that grow out of the dispute give rise to the profound, mature, and moderate
perspective, which does not gallop ahead with the intensity of uncompromising
absolute truth. That perspective opens its arms wide to receive the Divine
profusion streaming towards it in all the diversity of the words of the
Here is the appropriate place to add what we saw in the
previous shiur, that this perspective is also visited by the evil
yetzer. The openness and tolerance that grow out of the recognition that
both opinions are the word of the Living God, and out of the profound insight
that Divine truth is found in everything, is liable to lead to a standstill on
the practical level and to an absence of commitment to truth and knowledge on
the cognitive level. "Those who hold the absolute truth" are liable to sin by
blurring the complexity and variety of reality; on the other hand, "those of
infinite tolerance and openness" are liable to sin by losing boundaries and
adopting dangerous arbitrariness. All is true and all is correct, the Divine
light rests in everything; and therefore, all is permitted, all is fit, and all
This is the evil yetzer, which R. Nachman describes as
grabbing hold of a dispute in holiness and taking its nourishment from it, as we
saw in the previous shiur.
The solution that R. Nachman proposes to protect oneself from
this danger is decided Halakha. "Both opinions are the word of the Living God"
represents the truth that reveals itself when the world was created, in the
transition from the infinite existence that contains universal unity to finite
existence that is comprised of a plurality of things. The continuation of the
rabbinic dictum, however, "but the law is in accordance with Bet Hillel,"
represents the truth that reveals itself in the continued existence of the
world, as we saw in the previous shiur. Forward progression requires
choice and decision. Dispute allows the ideas of He who is perfect in knowledge
to be revealed in the world, but decision allows finite man to live alongside
the infinite. This comes at the cost of ignoring those truths with which the law
is not in agreement, the aspect of "a tzadik experiencing misfortune." It
is, however, accompanied by the inner awareness that even though "the law is in
accordance with Bet Hillel," nevertheless, "both opinions are the word of the
Living God," and this will remain so until the arrival of universal peace, when
opposites will be unified and contradictions harmonized.
TORAH SCHOLARS - CREATE THE WORLD
R. Nachman concludes section 4 with the following:
This is the meaning of the Mishna (Avot 1:17): "All my
days I have grown up between the Sages and have found nothing better for the
physical welfare of man than silence; study is not the most important thing but
practice; and too much talk brings sin."
"Between the Sages" is the aspect of the empty space that came
into existence and was made between the Sages, by way of the separation and
dispute between them, as was mentioned above. This expression, "between the
Sages," is precise, that is, there is separation and dispute between them. For
if they were all as one, it is not fitting to say "between the Sages." Through
dispute, empty space was formed, and in the empty space, the world was created,
that is, the days and the middot. This is the meaning of "All my days I
grew up," that I made my days and middot grow, which is the aspect of the
creation of the world, "between the Sages" "between the Sages" is precise, in
the empty space, as stated above, for all of creation took place there, as
stated above. This is the meaning of "I grew up," namely, I caused my days and
middot to grow from smallness to greatness. That which he called them "my
days," is because they are his days, because he creates the world, etc., as
"And I have found nothing better for the physical welfare of
man than silence," because there, in the empty space, there is nothing better
than silence, as stated above, for entry is permitted there only for one who is
the aspect of silence, the aspect of Moshe, as stated above. And that which he
said: "All my days I have grown up between the Sages and have found nothing,
etc," for by grabbing hold of this level, the aspect of silence, as he said that
there is nothing better than silence, he therefore caused his days and middot
to grow there in the empty space, for entry is permitted there only to one
who has the aspect of silence, as stated above.
"Study is not the most important thing but practice; and too
much talk brings sin." For all their study and talk that these Sages speak - the
most important thing is not study alone, but rather practice, that they should
do and create the world by way of their words, as stated above. "Do not read
ami ("My people"), but rather imi ("with Me")," as stated above.
"Too much talk brings sin," because it is from excessive light that the
kelipot came into existence, as stated above. (Likutei Moharan
Kama 64, 4)
Through an analysis of a Mishna in Avot, R. Nachman
connects these ideas to the previous passage that deals with silence.
We have seen in the shiurim dealing with section 3,
that silence is the only way to confront the uncertainties that grow out of the
empty space, in that it expresses man's inner ability to stand before a world
void of explanation, incomprehensible, and saturated with infinite uncertainty
that expresses, as it were, the absence of the Divine and still believe.
Here, however, we encounter what seems to be an internal
contradiction. The ability to confront the empty space, says R. Nachman in the
earlier passages, is to pass over it in silence and ignore its existence. Only
the absolute tzadik can enter into it and in his silence redeem from it
those souls that fell into it. In this passage, on the other hand, R. Nachman
sees the empty space as a necessary means through which Torah scholars are
obligated to pass in order to create the world with speech, rather than with
It seems to me that these things can only be reconciled if we
make a certain distinction. This distinction is correct with respect to all of
R. Nachman's writings, and appropriate here as well.
We have already seen previously the various ramifications
arising from the difference between an immanent conception of Divine existence,
which sees all of reality, including man, as a revelation of the Divine, and a
transcendental conception which clearly distinguishes between man and the world
on the one hand and God on the other. We noted that R. Nachman identifies
various movements that take place in the world and in man as part of the Divine
movement in the world. Thus R. Nachman identifies the act of tzimtzum
with all types of movements and processes that take place in man and in the
world. This means, as we have seen, that the Divine light that reveals itself
through that movement or through that man develops in the same manner that the
Divine light has always revealed itself since the first stages of existence:
infinite tzimtzum empty space measured and defined revelation.
We must, however, add certain reservations. The assertion that
the Divine light reveals itself through the world and also through man,
according to R. Nachman, does not negate man's standing before God and before
His revealing light. Man is at times an expression of the light that reveals
itself and at times he stands before the light that reveals itself to him.
In teaching no. 64, as we have seen thus far, man stands before
the infinite light, in its various revelations and absences, as receiver and
contemplator. The objections, uncertainties, questions and answers are Divine
light that comes to man ("from within him" or "into him"), and it is with that
light that he must struggle sometimes by way of search, sometimes by way of
exposure, and sometimes by way of silence. In sections 1-3, man, including the
tzaddik, seeks the Divine revelation. He ponders and seeks answers, he
wishes to hear the voice of God, and sometimes God is silent. When God is
silent, man must be silent as well.
This is not the case in section 4. Here the disputing Torah
scholars are not acted upon, but rather they act. They do not seek the Divine
light that reveals itself in the world, but rather they bring it. They are God's
agents for revelation, and paraphrasing the dictum, "the Torah, and the Holy
One, blessed be He, are one," we may say that Torah scholars and the Holy One,
blessed be He, are one!
When R. Nachman describes the empty space in sec. 4, he is not
trying to teach man how to deal with this type of Divine revelation. He is not
offering advice and guidance to man who has fallen into the depths of
uncertainty, as he did in the three previous sections. Here R. Nachman wishes to
show how dispute is yet another expression of that revelation of God's light
that follows the course of infinity, contraction, and revelation through the
The speech of the Torah scholars in their disputes is not the
way to deal with the empty space, as is the silence of the just tzadik
mentioned in the previous section, for that is not the subject of the discussion
here. The words of the Torah scholars constitute the objective that the empty
space comes to allow. Just as God, on His way to revelation, does not remain
silent, so too Torah scholars, on their way to bringing the Divine light into
the world, do not remain in their silence.
"Do not read ami ("My people"), but rather imi
("with Me") just as I formed heaven and earth with words, so have you done the
same." Here the Torah scholars do not stand up against the created world,
contending with the layers that talk and those that remain silent. They are the
ones who create it together with God. Their silence is not the way to deal with
the empty space, but rather it creates the empty space. Thus, their words do not
reveal God's truth in the world, but rather they create that truth and establish
it in the world. Therefore, Torah scholars ultimately speak in order to advance
the Divine light from the stage of tzimtzum to the stage of revelation.
This is different from the previous sections, where we were commanded to remain
silent in the face of the reality that reflects the Divine contraction ruling
The empty space, then, is not merely a decree of fate, with the
existence of which one must come to terms. It is a necessary condition for the
creation of the world. As such there are times that a person, when he merits to
become one with the light of God and be its carrier in the world, is obligated
to pass through the empty space together with the light, and from within it and
with its help create a world together with God. Such are Torah scholars who
contradict each other: Contradiction that begins with war and casualties, and
ends with total love of universal Divine truth that proclaims over and over,
"Both opinions are the word of the Living God."
 One who wishes to refresh his memory regarding the idea of
"empty space" should review shiurim 5-6.
 It was on the basis of this historical event that took
place over a thousand years ago, that R. Yehuda ha-Levi composed his work, the
 Many atheists who claim that all religion is the product of
human imagination base their argument on the plurality of religions and sects,
which they see as attesting to the fact that we are dealing here with subjective
truth, growing out of human needs.
 Again, as in previous cases, R. Nachman does not deal only
with the disputes between Torah scholars that relate to study, but also with
disputes that come upon a person through the world. Thus he says in another
passage: "I heard in his name that he said that through dispute that people
oppose a certain person, they do him a favor, for in that way he can grow and
develop. Just as when a seed is sown in the ground, if the ground were solid, it
would be impossible for a tree to grow and develop from the seed, and so the
ground perforce separates a bit so that there be room for the tree to grow in
similar manner, by way of dispute, a person is given room in which to grow and
develop (Chayei Moharan, The Service of God 60, 503).
 Again, anyone who wishes to refresh his memory and delve
deeper into this idea should review shiurim 8-10.
 Based on the Edomite kings in Bereishit (chap. 37),
regarding seven of which the verse states "And he reigned
and he died."
 See teaching 75 in Likutei Moharan Kamai, which we
cited in the previous shiur. There too R. Nachman draws a connection
between dispute and the breaking of the vessels.
 Primarily in shiur 18.
 Shiurim 6-7.
(Translated by David Strauss)