There is no Kabalah
Or more accurately, there is no single thing, belief, or system, no single book, technique, philosophy or theology, that is the extent of the Kabalah. Whenever someone says, “according to the Kabalahâ€¦” or “the Kabalah saysâ€¦” they are at best being incomplete and at worst showing their lack of knowledge about the subject.
In fact, there are many Kabalistic traditions. Although they rarely outright disagree with each other, they often focus on completely different things. One of these schools is based on the teachings of the sixteenth-century Kabalist, Isaac Luria. Lurianic Kabalah focuses on the way God created the universe and then on purifying or “fixing” the universe into which evil (in a very broad sense) had entered.
Tzimtzum is a Hebrew word meaning contraction. Since it is Hebrew, there are various interpretations of how to spell it in English, so don’t be surprised if you see it spelled differently. Tzimtzum is a Lurianic idea as to how the universe was created by God. Sure, according to the Jewish Bible God simply spoke and the universe, and our world, came into being. But what was the exact method of this taking place? That’s what Luria and his followers tried to answer with the idea of Tzimtzum.
In many books on the Kabalah, or that come from a Kabalistic point of view, the transcendent, unknowable deity manifested as limitless light and sent this light like a flaming sword through the ten sephiroth of the Tree of Life. At each sephirah, it was as if a shade came down, limiting the spiritual brilliance of God, until at the final sephira, the world of the elements, our physical universe, could manifest.
Luria didn’t accept this. Where, he wondered, was this physical universe? If the universe started with God being everywhere, how could God, who is spiritual, have created something physical? Luria’s answer was Tzimtzum.
God is seen as eternal. Contrary to popular belief, the technical meaning of the term eternal is not “lives forever.” Rather, it means “outside of time.” So God had always filled the universe, fills the universe now, and will always fill the universe with limitless power/light. In order to make room for a physical universe, God chose to contract from some of the infinite space that was filled with God’s essence. And yet, God was still in the area of that contraction. How is this possible? How could God be where God no longer is? Well, the usual explanation is that a rose may fill a room with its scent. Take the rose out of the room and the scent is still there.
So it was in this space from which God contracted (yet still remained in) into which the transcendent deity sent forth the limitless light that descended the Tree of Life.
Over time, this theory has evolved and changed. For example, is it a metaphor, or should it be accepted as literal? There are schools that hold one position or the other. Another part of Lurianic Kabalism holds that the first time the transcendent deity sent forth limitless light, it shattered the vessels (the sephiroth) and had to be reconstructed. Lurianic Kabalism is far more complex than can be fully explained in a web page and there are many books that discuss it.
The important thing to know, for this discussion, is that the concept of Tzimtzum is that God has to withdraw before being able to fill an area with limitless transcendent light. So why do I mention this?
Go to the Theater!
This last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing the new movie, “Life of Pi.” I strongly recommend this as being one of the best films of the year. It is based on the book of the same name, written by Yann Martel. The film was directed by Ang Lee, the Academy Award-winning director of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.”
It is exciting enough to keep any explosion-oriented filmgoer happy, filled with an incredible sinking of a boat followed by life-and-death struggles for survival. It’s about dealing with loss, both of family and belief, leading to spiritual renewal. I think it is one of the most spiritual movies you’ll ever see. It never takes the easy road of being preachy or maudlin.
“Pi” is the name of the main character, a young many who is willing to explore numerous faiths on his quest to know more. He finally sets out from India to Canada on a Japanese ship named “Tsimtsum.” Most of the movie is about his struggle to survive in a lifeboat along with a fierce Bengal tiger. No, they do not become “friends.” The tiger does not develop a Disneyesque human-like personality. Pi has to learn to deal with the reality of the universe, and true to the name of the ship and lifeboat, his journey is also one where he feels that God has deserted him before he can be open to the incoming presence of God.
If you need a “time out” from shopping or making gifts this holiday season, do yourself a favor and see “Life of Pi.” If you understand that this exciting tale is a spiritual journey that explains Tzimtzum, you will not only enjoy the film more, you may actually find yourself more open to the influx of the Divine.