Tsimtsum in Habad Hasidism
Supervisors: Dr Francois Guesnet, Prof Ada Rapoport-Albert, Dr Tali Loewenthal
Period of Study: 2017 - 2024
My research focuses on the intellectual and social history of Habad Hasidism with a particular focus on the interpretation and significance of the Kabbalistic concept of tsimtum. Habad's intergenerational engagement with the meaning of tsimtsum provides a methodological window through which to illuminate the ways in which its’s intellectual and social trajectories are fundamentally intertwined, and to address broader questions concerning the different contributions of the successive leaders of the movement from its origins up to the last decade of the 20th century.
Habad emerged as a distinctly intellectualist strand within the wider Hasidic movement at the end of the 18th century. Most scholars agree that one of the ideological elements to have raised the ire of Hasidism’s opponents during Habad’s embryonic and emergent periods was a doctrine of divine immanence. In Habad in particular this doctrine was specifically linked to a non-literal interpretation of the cosmic tsimtsum described in Lurianic Kabbalah. The non-literal interpretation was elaborately expounded in the oral teachings of Habad’s first leader, R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and robustly defended in his writings, setting a precedent that would echo strongly in the teachings of his successors. For the Habad masters tsimtsum was not simply a one dimensional doctrine whose implications could be reduced only to questions of divine immanence and transcendence. Instead it was seen as a prism through which many fundamental questions regarding G-d, humanity, the Torah, its commandments, the cosmos, and their interrelationships, could constantly be revisited.
In the two centuries since R. Schneur Zalman’s time Habad has played a seminal role in the shaping of modern Judaism. In the aftermath of World War Two and the Holocaust the sixth and seventh leaders of the movement (referred to as “rebbes” or “admorim”) successfully reestablished their institutional base in Brooklyn, New York, and marshaled their followers in a global effort to revitalize Jewish observance and disseminate Habad teachings. Habad representatives and institutions can now be found even in places where there is little else in the way of Jewish community organisation and infrastructure. This historical trajectory has a strong intellectual facet as well. Each of the successive admorim expounded and expanded on the original teachings of the founder, each with their own distinctive style of emphasis and innovation. Throughout, the kabbalistic motif of tsimtsum and its implications remained a constant focus of intellectual activity.