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?


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