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 –



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

  1. This is great. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. How does it fit with Schlemiel Theory? or just something you’re thinking about ?

    Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder 617 253 2982 40 Mass Ave W-11 “If sincere questions are silenced, this is indicative that the religion is weak.”



    • Thanks, Gavriel. It is a part of something I am working right now – what I am going to call a “theology of smallness.” It will be used as a backdrop for my reading of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s Simpleton/schlemiel and his reading of “smallness.”

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