Sleeplessness, Insomnia, and Ambien: On Jonathan Crary’s “24/7”


Unlike ever before, the possibility that we are living in a culture that never sleeps is becoming a reality.   Whether it’s the constant need (or is it demand?) to check one’s email, post on Facebook, or go through Twitter feeds, none of us can escape being implicated in what the art historian and critical theorist Jonathan Crary would call 24/7.   His book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep offers a very pessimistic prognosis of the reality we are in and argues that the only way to battle it is, strangely enough, through sleep. No form of “awakening” or resistance can dislodge or disrupt 24/7.   All forms of resistance that we have turned to in the past are ineffective against it: art, literature, protests, violence, etc.   And this includes the theoretical possibilities of resistance posed by such great thinkers as Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Hannah Arendt.

Crary argues that “24/7 steadily undermines distinctions between day and night, between light and dark, and between action and repose”(17). Like Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben, he thinks that “experience” is no longer possible. But he has a different explanation as to why this is the case. It is 24/7 which is the culprit not speed or technology.   It is a “zone of insensibility, of amnesia.”   Crary draws on Maurice Blanchot’s book, The Writing of the Disaster, to explain:

It (24/7) is both of and after the disaster, characterized by the empty sky, in which no star or sign is visible, in which one’s bearings are lost and orientation is impossible.   More concretely, it is like a state of emergency, when a bank of floodlights are suddenly switched on in the middle of the night, seemingly as a response to some extreme circumstances, but which never get turned off and become domesticated into a permanent condition. (17)

The planet, says Crary, becomes a “non-stop work site or an always open shopping mall with infinite choices, tasks, selections, and digressions.” There is nowhere we can stop and think or have repose.     All of this is “hastening the exhaustion of life and the depletion of resources.”

The only “natural barrier” against the “full realization of 24/7 capitalism” is sleep. Nonetheless, it can be “wrecked.”   To explain, Crary points out how – as of a study in 2010 – around 50 million people in the USA are taking Ambien or Lunesta.   Today, that figure is likely much higher.   It would be a mistake, argues Crary, to think that they would totally eliminate insomnia: “insomnia is now inseperable from many other forms of dispossession and social ruin occurring globally”(18).   In other words, the mass experience of insomnia in the USA is “continuous with a generalized condition of worldlessness” and it isn’t going to get any better (regardless of how good the sleeping pills are).   24/7 is a global phenomenon and no first world country is exempt.

Citing Emmanuel Levinas’s reading of insomnia in terms of ethics – as a state of ethical vigilance in the face of “catastrophes of our era” – Crary argues that one form of insomnia may overtake another:

Insomnia corresponds to the necessity of vigilance, to a refusal to overlook the horror and injustice that pervades the world.   It is the disquiet of the effort to avoid inattention to the torment of the other.   But its disquiet is also the frustrating inefficacy of an ethic of watchfulness; the act of witnessing and its monotony can become a mere enduring of the night, the disaster….For Levinas, insomnia always hovers between self-absorption and a radical depersonalization; it does not exclude a concern for the other, but it provides no clear sense of a space for the other’s presence. It is where we face the near impossibility of living humanely. (19)

Playing on Jacques Derrida’s notion of the specter and Walter Benjamin’s mediations on the return of the (historically) repressed, Crary argues that the 24/7 world eradicates “shadows and obscurity and alternate temporalities”(19).   It is a “world identical to itself, a world with the shallowest of pasts, and thus in principle without specters”(19). Moreover, it seems to eliminate the wellsprings of both philosophy and religion (as per Aristotle, Heidegger, and AJ Heschel): wonder. 24/7 puts forth a “fraudulent brightness that presumes to extend everywhere and to preempt any mystery or unknowablility”(19). In the space of 24/7 nothing can truly come to light – no mystery, no awakening, no self-discovery that comes out of the darkness. Crary argues that 24/7 can “neutralize or absorb many dislocating experiences of return (or the past, specters) that could potentially undermine the substantiality and identity of the present and its apparent self-sufficiency”(20).

Although Hannah Arendt’s work is celebrated by Judith Butler and many others as offering a possibility for radical change and a “political life”(bios politicos). Crary disagrees. Drawing on her work that distinguishes the private from the public realm, he argues that for this distinction to work there needs to be a clear distinction (as she notes) between light and dark:

Over many years, she used figures of light and visibility in her accounts of what was necessary for there to be any substantive political life. For an individual to have political effectiveness, there needed to be balance, a movement between the bright, even harsh exposure of public activity and the protected, shielded sphere of domestic or private life, of what she calls the “darkness of sheltered existence. (21)

But without the space or time for privacy (away from what Arendt calls the “implacable bright light of constant presence of others on the public scene”), avers Crary, there “could be no possibility of the nurturing of the singularity of the self”(21).   Crary, echoing Arednt, says that only this kind of self could make a contribution to the public good. But…what happens when that kind of self is no longer possible because of….24/7?

The rhetoric of political or spiritual awakenings whether through Paul, Jewish mysticism, or the Communists, so as to recover some kind of sleeping authenticity, has no effect in 24/7. Playing on Carl Schmidt, Walter Benjamin, and Giorgio Agamben, Crary argues that “awakening” as a “form of decisionism” in which “the experience of a redemptive moment that seems to disrupt historical time, in which an individual undergoes a self-transforming encounter with a previously unknown future” is “incongruous” with the “global system that never sleeps”(24).

The only thing left, argues Crary, is (to) sleep:

The larger thrust of my argument is that, in the context of our own present, sleep can stand for the durability of the social, and the sleep might be analogous to other thresholds could defend or protect itself. As the most private, most vulnerable state common to all, sleep is crucially dependent on society in order to be sustained. (25)

The obvious question is how sleep can change the world. This proposal doesn’t make any sense and, given the excitement over the word “revolution” in the present American political campaign, it seems counterintuitive. But, as Crary would argue, any claim to changing the system would still be under the domination of 24/7. For Crary, sleeplessness makes all these activities seem trivial and even nostalgic.

Regardless of what you think, all you of have to do is take note of how many times you felt the urgent need to check Facebook, update a status, or Tweet something in order to seem relevant and alive (while at same time feeling exhausted and depleted) to know that 24/7 is not simply a concept…it’s a reality.   The question we need to ask is whether – as James Joyce wrote in his epic novel Ulysses, we can “awake” from “the nightmare of history.” Or will we just have to accept it? Will literature, art, or poetry no longer provide us with shelter from the storm?

What are the implications of 24/7? If the metaphor of awaking and starting something new and authentic is foreclosed by 24/7, perhaps the only metaphor left is sleep. If all the ghosts of history are, so to speak, busted by the endless light of 24/7, what is left to shake history? Can we be vigilant anymore when insomnia is endemic and violence is constantly reabsorbed into the media? Can we nurture our singularity in the darkness of our private spaces when there the private space has been effaced by 24/7? Can we hope for a spiritual or political awakening when we are always awake?

As you can see, I have many questions for Crary.   All of these questions must address his pessimistic claim that all previous models of resistance seem to have been foreclosed by 24/7. Is he correct? I think it is imperative that we answer this question. Otherwise, most of us who posit this or that thing as a form of resistance are willing to ignore the elephant in the room.  As we upload our next status update…like everyone else…we should try to pause and take notice of how restless we have become.   It seems as if you or I don’t have much time to keep up. But if you or I don’t, we have nothing to worry about.   Simply abstain from taking your Ambien and you’ll have just won’t have sleep.

A Theology of Smallness? A Wild Take on the Schlemiel’s Smallness & Tsimsum


Recently, I have been engaged in a fascinating conversation with a colleague about the concept of tsimtsum.   After suggesting that I think about the tsimtsum in terms of contraction and expansion, he asked me a personal question. Would I, at this very moment, prefer expanding or contracting? After thinking about it, it struck me that he was aligning the schlemiel with only one of these possibilities: contraction.   A person who does not want to expand is a schlemiel. For this reason, it seems illogical that a person who, by a certain definition, desires to live and expand, would want to contract.   He told me that what a person desires most, according to this way of thinking, is to expand, be free, and be joyful.

I am astonished at the implications of what he was saying. Yes, I desired those things. If I do, does that mean that I am not a schlemiel? Does the schlemiel, if it is identified with contraction, suggest the opposite? Does the schlemiel desire to be small, limited, and sad? If this is a choice, than wouldn’t deciding to be a schlemiel be equated with self-sabotage?

Intuitively, no, I can’t believe it. It can’t be true. A schlemiel doesn’t always sabotage himself. There are times when a schlemiel actually gets lucky and stumbles over things….and then into things that take him or her to another level. Perhaps becoming a schlemiel is a different choice or…no choice at all.

To riff on Jacques Derrida, if we are always already small, than what choice do we have but to find joy instead of sadness in smallness?     And why can’t contraction also be expansion? Why do they have opposite value? Perhaps in becoming small one grows.   The experience of smallness gives the schlemiel a certain kind of vitality which is born out of the relationship to the other. I am very interested in how one can see this not only in secular texts but also in Hasidic texts, which have a religious intent.

In researching what I call a “theology of smallness,” I have sought for a literary figuration of smallness by a Hasidic rabbi. For in doing that, I am researching what I call a religious schlemiel.     According to Ruth Wisse, the religious schlemiel can be found in Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s tale, “The Tam (Simpleton) and the Chakham (Sophisticate).” She argues the Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s 19th century version of the schlemiel is a prototype for the early Yiddish writers of the late 19th century who drew on it constantly.

What I find most interesting about the tale is that the main character, a Tam (for now on, Simpleton), is already small and remains so throughout the tale. His smallness inheres, fundamentally, in his difference from his old time friend, the Chakham (sophisticate).

The schlemiel-slash-simpleton’s smallness inheres in the fact that he stays in the same town – while the Chakham goes abroad – he works on one craft all his life, cobbling – while the Chakham learns many trades – and he looks at people in a simple, kind way and trusts humanity – while the Chakham does not. His smallness is also, therefore, intellectual. What makes him unique is that, in his simplicity, in his lack of intellectual expansion, he is happy – while the Chakham is angry and bitter because he sees the world as foolish and gullible.

It is the simpleton who, by no work of his own, is somehow discovered by the King.   But so is the Chakham (the fact that they are friends and are living together is actually astonishing for the king).   Two different messengers – matching the nature of the Simpelton and the Chakham While the simpleton takes the invitation and believes the messenger, the Chakham does not. He cannot believe that 1) he would be desired by the king and 2) there is a king. The narrative goes on to show that the simpleton meets the king and becomes the leader over a province – within which lives the Chakham.

One day the Chakham is brought to him – for judgment – because he created havoc over a “baal shem tov” (a healer). When the Chakham stumbles across the threshold and looks up to see the Simpleton, he is astonished. How could it be that you, a small man, should be come the big leader of a province? The answer is that the king gave him this position, but the Chakham refuses to believe this because, as he had always insisted, no one has ever experienced the king: the king is a myth. To play on Nietzsche, the God he and everyone serves is dead (he was never alive).

The irony is the Chakham becomes small (out of self-sabotage, if you will) while the Simpleton happens to become “big.” However, the Simpleton’s bigness hasn’t changed his smallness. What makes him small is the fact that he is not only close to the king, but is also not far away from his own people. We can identify with the schlemiel.

Rabbi Nachman’s religious schlemiel is, as Hannah Arendt said of the schlemiel in “The Jew as Pariah,” a “man of the people.”   The people love and desire the schlemiel because he doesn’t become distant from people when he becomes their leader. This gives birth to another political question: how could it be that a schlemiel could be a leader? This is absurd.

However, this is what we see Charlie Chaplin doing at the end of his film, The Great Dictator. His bigness (expansion, literally, playing with the globe) is really small because he appeals to our natural sense of right and wrong through humor. But what Chaplin did was to secularize this kind of smallness and to show that if we are to expand, we must contract.

But in the desire to watch Chaplin’s smallness as he stumbles from one thing to another, perhaps one can say that we expand. Since Chaplin falls with grace, he redeems smallness from the jaws of tragedy. And this gives birth to hope.

This is how I would answer if anyone asked me whether I desire contraction or expansion. What I – like millions of people – desire is a kind of contraction that creates a larger life and freedom.   That’s the irony of the religious schlemiel.   If it is seen as stumbling and small, since his falling is done with a certain kind of grace and freedom, Chaplin’s performance shows the schlemiel to be a character who may be chased down or on the run (Hannah Arendt calls Chaplin the “suspect”). But, ultimately, will likely get away by the tips of his shoes.

But when he stumbles into safety, he creates a new kind of life or hope in life’s growth and expansion.   The schlemiel can tell us that there will – somehow – be a better life. That trust is found not only in Rabbi Nachman’s tale but in Charlie Chaplin’s stumblings through film. Without the element of trust in somehow getting through, smallness would be a tragedy rather than a comedy. It would be equated with death, not life.

This leads to a few final questions that I need to think more about. In accepting a certain kind of contraction, perhaps I am really accepting another kind of expansion?   But if this certain kind of contraction is taken (in a Kiergegaardian sense) to be aesthetic and not ethical, I can understand that identification of the schlemiel has nothing to do with life or, rather, it sabotages it. If I identify with the schlemiel I identify with an aesthetic kind of smallness. Is this smallness ethical or aesthetic? Can it be both?   Is it, as Kierkegaard might say, religious?

Yes.  Here’s a wild possibility: perhaps the identification of the schlemiel can be ethical, aesthetic, and religious at the same time.

But it is only “yes” if this comedy leads to more life and more trust.   The expansion that comes with the identification with the schlemiel is ethical, aesthetic, and vital (in a physical and spiritual sense). It is, ultimately, a vindication of humanity and the possibly…of God.   This is the possibility that is posed by a theology of smallness.*    It is desirable.  However, as Gershom Scholem said about tsimtsum, the relation of the God to the world (like the relationship of the schlemiel to the audience) should be thought of in terms of a relation to a “living organism” with a “Janus Faced Character.” The desire for smallness, in this sense, may bring contraction or it may bring expansion. But…we can only hope for the best even though that may change, as the French poet Mallarme would say, with a “throw of the dice.” Perhaps, in this sense, faith is tied to chance.



* The possibility poses, for me, two final questions regarding the meaning of one’s desire for seeing both religious and secular schlemiels: 1) Does one decide on taking the schlemiel’s way of life by virtue of desiring it and is this choice real or virtual? And 2) What are the aesthetics and ethics of such a desire?


The Stranger, Uninvited: Maurice Blanchot on Tsimtsum, the Other & the “God of Isaac Luria”


Maurice Blanchot’s writing is difficult and often opaque, but at least it’s consistent.   We see this throughout his books. To read Blanchot, is to ask the right questions. The task of the reader is to figure out what the problems and paradoxes Blanchot is pondering are and to figure out what his approach to them suggests. Of the topics Blanchot writes about, one of the most interesting is the relationship of writing to what he calls “the disaster.”   In a surprising aside, Blanchot suggests that the view of God and His creation of the world, as proposed by the 16th century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria (the Ari), provide a model for understanding writing and art.   What is most fascinating about Blanchot’s reading is that the primary movement of Tsimtsum – the movement of withdrawal from the world – can be read as the condition for the possibility of art, creation, and writing.   However, unlike Blanchot, we need to ask whether his reading of withdrawal presupposes the total absence of God or the writer from the artwork or…something else, something smaller, something…other.

In the opening pages of The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot tells us that the desire to write is “absurd” because “writing is the decay of the will, just as it is the loss of power, and the fall of the regular fall of the beat, the disaster again”(11).     The more one writes, the less one wills and the less power one has. In effect, the writer and his or her assumed power is ruined by writing.   Writing has a disasterous affect. It reduces the will but it doesn’t annihilate it.   It makes one small. Instead of expanding my world, it shrinks it.

On the other hand, Blanchot tells us that the attempt to not write, so that one can “write out of failure,” puts one in “fellowship with the disaster.” Blanchot suggests that the writer should stop seeing writing as a form of salvation or a means to success.   This, of course, goes against the grain of what most writers truly believe. It is counter-intuitive; but the presumption here is that acting “as if” it is true may (perhaps) yield something unexpected. Writing may…happen, but not because I have willed it to happen:

May words cease to be arms; means of action, means of salvation. Let us count, rather, on disarray….whether it happens or not; it is the writing of the disaster. (12)

After noting this, Blanchot contradicts what he said above regarding “writing out of failure” and says that we “should not entrust ourselves to failure. That would only be to indulge in the nostalgia for success.”

What should we do, then? How is it possible for a writer to write out of neither success nor failure? Blanchot suggests that we, rather, “seek out” that “which out-plays (the way the disaster de-scribes)….it is what by chance befalls, and I fall beneath it, having always fallen already”(12).   Failure – in other words – is something that happens outside of us: we don’t start from a position of failure; rather, we may or may not “fall beneath” chance and, when we do, we will discover that we have “always fallen already.”   It is not a choice. This is what he calls the “thought of disaster,” which “dismisses all ideas of failure and success.”   This “thought” produces what he calls a “separate silence,” a space where the “other, keeping still, announces himself”(13).

As a reader, one may – at this point – be rightfully confused. Blanchot wants us to imagine a world and a creative space in which the will and all desire for success or the experience of failure have nothing to do with “me.”   This, he claims, is the “thought of disaster.” But, in the wake of this thought, I realize that I am not alone; I can experience a “separate silence” which is not mine; it is the other’s silence. In this space, “the other, keeping still, announces himself.” What Blanchot is doing, by way of reducing the self, its power, and its expansiveness, is not only making room for the “announcement” of the other; it is also creating a kind of Creation myth.   This is evident in the next aphorism, where he evokes Isaac Luria and his creation myth, which Luria calls “tsimtsum.”

Withdrawal and not expansion. Such would be art, in the manner of the God of Isaac Luria, who creates by excluding himself. (13)

Writing on tsimsum, Gershom Scholem tells us that there are two phases: one of withdrawal and the other of birth.   Since they are so different, Scholem says that these two phases have a “Janus character.”   Although Blanchot only focuses on withdrawal, he indirectly suggests that by withdrawing ourselves from what we do (by becoming small), we, like God, create. But , in truth,this creation is more or less a disclosure (or discovery) of the other. What Blanchot leaves unsaid in this aphorism is what he mentioned in the aphorism before; namely, that the withdrawal makes room for the announcement of the other. The other is, so to speak, born (announced) out of that withdrawal.

Scholem also points out that, since the Ari is a “theistic mystic” (rather than a pantheistic mystic), things are left separate (“with a reality of their own” so as not to dissolve in the Panthesitic “All”). This does not mean, however, that they are in total separation and Exile since there is what Scholem calls – following the Ari – the reshimu (the trace of God). Scholem argues that there is a dynamism between God and Creation (“steaming back” and flowing “outward”). For this reason, he likens God to a “living organism” who approaches and withdraws.  This means that withdrawal (or the “disaster,” as Blanchot would say) is not total.

Building on Blanchot, I would add that in withdrawing from Creation there is also the possibility of the other’s approach. We fall under the sway of chance, but this has to do with the blinkering (or as Michael Wyschogrod would say, “dark”) relation between man and God. What Blanchot calls the “thought of the disaster” is not a total disaster (man is not annihilated). Rather, disaster is a making small. God’s withdrawal and approach work on the micro not the macro level.

This relation is beyond success and failure because it only, in part, has to do with me. It also involves the other. Moreover, the approach and withdrawal – qua tsimtsum – are (as Scholem notes in his reading of he Ari) always happening. We may or may not merit disclosure or a hearing of the “announcement,” but we cannot merit anything if we are not made small by the “thought of disaster.” This thought opens one up to the possibility that, in the face of disaster, God hides his face. To be sure, this experience of concealment is a possibility of this thought. To think of total concealment as the necessity, however, would be a mistake (regarding what the Ari is suggesting). To think of a withdrawal without any possibility of revelation, is to take Blanchot to be articulating the truth of creation as total exile and withdrawal.   It would suggest that there is no dynamic or rhythm between God and man.

I would suggest, with a wink toward Martin Heidegger’s notion of “nihilation” (in his essay “What is Metaphysics?”) that while the world or the self may be nihilated and made strange, the self and the world are not annihilated by the nothing or the disaster. Both remain. But the self and the world are smaller than they were before it had this thought. Even so – in contrast to Heidegger and with a wink toward Emmanuel Levinas – I would argue (as Blanchot suggests) that in the wake of disaster the other “announces himself.”   In this creation myth, disaster – in making us small – is the condition for the possibility of a birth and the experience of the other.   The disaster comes and goes, as Blanchot suggests, like a rhythm just like the other comes and goes. The reason it does so – and reduces us and our world – has to do with the fact that we are always expanding and tend to forget how small we are not only in relation to the other but also in relation to God. We can only meet the other or God when we are small. But this smallness is not something we can simply decide on. Like the “thought of disaster,” it happens.

Blanchot – like the Ari – is asking us to envision a different kind of creation.   But instead of the “thought of disaster” being nihilistic, it is affirmative. By becoming small, writing (and creation) can make room for the other (creature) whose withdrawal and approach give meaning to my little – nihilated – and creaturely existence.

But this approach should not simply to be thought of in terms of what Blanchot suggests: sound and silence.   The other’s silence, as Paul Celan notes in one poem entitled “ABOVE SOUNDLESS,” is conveyed by presence. Celan figures the appearance of the other – out of nothing – in terms of a stranger coming in from the rain, on the threshold, with a tear in his eye. His time with us – like the numbers he counts – is limited. He comes and goes but he “betokens insight.” To appreciate this, one must become small and take the lines of the poem to be suggesting that “our” relation to the stranger makes “us” small and his stay (and our time with him) short.


The stranger, uninvited, from where,

The guest.

His dripping clothes.

His dripping eye.


His clothes-and-yes, like us

He is filled with night, he betokens

Insight, he counts now,

Like us, up to ten

And no farther.

The Janus Character of God and Existence: Gershom Scholem on the Implications of Tsimtsum


One of the most interesting questions that the Kabbalah addresses deals with how one is to imagine God’s relationship to Creation.   The models that were sketched out to address this question have affected how Kabbalists have envisioned not just God but their experience of God in the world.   Is the relationship straightforward and simple or is it complex?

Writing on the Kabbalist Isaac Luria (the Ari), Gershom Scholem, in his Trends in Jewish Mysticism, tells us that, in comparison to the Zohar, “his cosmogony is both more original and more elaborate.”   Scholem finds the earlier, Neoplatonic conception of God’s relation to creation to be simple since it “begins with an act in which God projects His creative power out of His own self into space.”   And “every new act is a further stage in the process of externalization, which unfolds, in accordance with the emanationist doctrine of Neoplatonism, in a straight line downwards”(260).

In contrast to the Zohar’s emenationist perspective, Scholem says that Isaac Luria’s notion of Tsimtsum is complex.   Moreover, Scholem argues that it was “one of the most amazing and far reaching conceptions ever put forward in the whole history of Kabbalism.” Scholem, in the most economic language, explains that Tsimtsum “originally means ‘concentration’ or ‘contraction’ but if used in the Kabbalistic parlance it is best translated as ‘withdrawal’ or ‘retreat.’”(260).

Contrasting these two translations, Scholem takes note that while the Midrash explains that God “concentrates” himself into “one point” in one place (the Holy of Holies in the Temple), Tsimtsum suggests a “retreat away from the point.” To explain what this means and what it implies, Scholem first warns us that one should not simply think that this is the “withdrawal of God into his own Being in terms of Exile.”

Rather than do that, Scholem suggests that we think of Tsimtsum in terms of two “acts”:

The first act of all is not an act of revelation but one of limitation. Only in the second act does God send out a ray of His light and begin his revelation, or rather his unfolding as God the Creator, and the primordial space of His own creation. More than that, every new act of emanation and manifestation is preceded by one of concentration and retraction. (261)

Instead of being a simple process of emanation, this process is what Scholem calls a “double strain” since it includes light which “streams back into God and flows out of Him.”   This “perpetual tension” and “repeated effort” is the condition for the possibility of the world’s existence. Moshe Idel calls this “dynamism.”   It is the best attempt there is, says Scholem, to explain the Creation out of Nothing.   But it leads to a “theosophical mystery.”

For Scholem, the mystery emerges out of a tension between pantheism, which he associates with the emenation theory we find in the Zohar, and theism, which he associates with Tsimtsum.   While suggesting that there is a “residue” of “divine manifestation in every being,” Tsimtsum also suggests that “every being…acquires a reality of its own which guards it against the danger of dissolution into the non-individual being of the divine ‘all in all’”(262).  For this reason, Scholem calls the Ari a “theistic mystic.”

Scholem argues that from the period of European Renaissance onwards there was a clash between the Ari’s reading of Tsimtsum and those who clung to the pantheistic emanation theory we find in the Zohar.   Scholem’s brilliant move is to locate this tension in the interpretation of the Tsimtsum as literal or metaphorical.

If the Tsimtsum is interpreted metaphorically, than it is “only a veil which separate the individual consciousness from God in such a way as to give it the illusion of self-consciousness, in which it knows itself to be different from God”(262). In that case, “all it takes is an imperceptible change” so that “the heart may perceive the unity of divine subsistence in all that exists”(262). In other words, this “imperceptible change” will make room for the mystical experience that the Tsimtsum is an illusion and that all is God.

Scholem says in another essay (“The Messianic Idea in Judaism”) that, based on the literal reading of the Tsimtsum, we can understand how all things (in contrast to how the theory of emanation sees things) have “this basic Janus character – the limiting force and the emanating force, retreat and propagation. Only the concurrence of the two disparate motifs can produce being.”

The reading of God in terms of “limitation” changes how we see God and the world. Scholem, in this essay, calls this idea “paradoxical” and says it “has vitality” because “it expresses the notion of a living God – a God thought of as a living organism.”  What is so fascinating about Scholem’s claim is that, after making it, he doesn’t explain what it means that God is – in terms of Tsimtsum – a “living organism.” Rather, he discusses other ideas of the Ari (such as the “shattering of the vessels” or the notion of “tikkun”) which build on the notion of Tsimtsum. But in doing so, he refers to what he just explained – in terms of God as a “living organism”- as a “process.”

How does one merge the “Janus character” of God with a “living organism” and a “process”?   Is Scholem suggesting that a living organism – which retreats and propagates – is a process? And that this process is God?

What is fascinating about this reading is that Scholem differentiates it from emanationism and pantheism, which one can also call a process of God’s revealing himself. This process, however, is different because it is dynamic and includes a kind of blinkering that is uneven. God’s revelation – like that of an organism which propagates itself by giving birth to something new – is mixed with darkness and limitation. While the reading of tsimtsum in a figural manner is mystical, Scholem suggests – through this kind of approach – that the literal reading tends to not only be more theistic but also more biological.

Perhaps, in making such a reading, Scholem is moving along a trajectory mapped out by Michael Wyschogrod, which sees God in vital (yet not pantheistic) terms.   After all, the personal God that Wyschogrod takes to heart (like Martin Buber) is seen in terms of a God who comes and goes. As Wyschogrod notes in his book, The Body of Faith, God dwells and withdraws from the Jewish people. And like a living being, God loves and is vulnerable in this approach and withdrawal.

To bring this abstraction closer to earth, I’ll end with a fragment of a Paul Celan poem called “The Straightening.” It speaks to this coming and going – this dynamic tsimtsum of sorts – that has a “Janus character.” The poem dramatizes a play of light, darkness, and movement; advance and withdrawal, disclosure and concealment.   It suggests that God – in his relation to man and history – has a Janus Character and it calls for Him to “go to the eye” that is crying because of His concealment, perhaps during the Holocaust. (Note: Celan read Scholem’s Kabbalah scholarship and often brought Kabbalistic ideas into his poetry.)


Covered it

Up – who?


Came, came.

Came a word, came,

Came through the night,

Wanted to shine, wanted to shine.



Ash, ash.


Night-and-night. – Go

To the eye, the moist one.



To the eye,

The moist one –