Reprinted with the author’s permission from “Tikkun: A Lurianic Motif in Contemporary Jewish Thought,” in From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism: Intellect in Quest of Understanding–Essays in Honor of Marvin Fox, Vol. 4, ed. Jacob Neusner et al. (Scholars Press).
Isaac Luria taught what amounts to a 16th-century version of a gnostic myth, organized around three main themes: tzimtzum [“contraction”], shevirat ha-kelim [“the shattering of the vessels”], and tikkun [“repair” or “fixing”].
God Contracts the Divine Essence
In contrast to the mythological conceptions of early Kabbalah, which conceived of the initial theogonic [self-creative] activity as an outward act of emanation, Luria describes the first action of divinity as an inward one. Tzimtzum refers to the process by which the Godhead contracts its essence, so to speak, by retreating “from Himself into Himself,” abandoning a space in order to create an “empty” region.
[The explanation of this] step inward sought to solve the question of how the existence of the world is possible if divinity, which is Infinite, fills all space. The answer which Lurianic Kabbalah provides is that by an act of withdrawal, a space–infinitesimally small in comparison to God‘s infinity–is created in which all dimensions of existence can unfold.
Prior to this event, the different powers of divinity were harmoniously balanced without any apparent individuation or differentiation. In particular, the opposing forces of Mercy (Hesed) and Stern Judgment (Din) existed in a state of complete unity. But in the course of tzimtzum, Ein Sof [God’s essence referred to by the name “There-Is-No-Limit”] gathered in one place all the “roots” of Stern Judgment, leaving them behind in the region now abandoned.
In addition, a positive residue of divine light, known as reshimu (“traces” [or impression]), remained in the empty space. This resulted in a separation between Din and Hesed and the establishment of a measure of independence for the forces of Din. Thus, from one point of view, the tzimtzum can be regarded as an act of purification in which the “dross” within God was purged from His innermost being.
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