Rav Nachman Shiur #8: Heresy and Doubt
By: Rav Itamar Eldar
In the previous shiur we saw how the theological fact of Hashem's filling the entire world brought R. Nachman to comprehensivly demand that one maintain a constant dialogue with Hashem. But there are times when this demand also becomes a person's life-line:
And this is as brought in the Yerushalmi Talmud (Ta'anit chapter 1): "If someone asks you, 'Where is your God?,' you shall say to him, 'In a great book in Rome,' as it is written, 'My God calls out from Se'ir.'" We see that this person who asked 'Where is your God?' must obviously be immersed in the realm of the "shells" (kelipot), for he has removed himself completely from the community, as he says: 'Where is your God?' - it appears to him that in the place where he is, there is no God. And so you should tell him: 'Even in the place where you are, immersed in the realm of the kelipot - even there you may find Divinity. For He gives life to everything, as it is written, "And You give life to all." And from that place you can bring yourself closer to the blessed God, and return to him in complete repentance. For it [repentance] is not far removed from you; only in your place its [concealing] garments are many. And as man climbs from one level to the next, he approaches nearer and nearer to the blessed God, and may come to know Hashem with a great understanding. For the higher his level, the fewer the garments, and the less the constriction, and then he may approach nearer to Hashem and may bring himself to love Hashem with a great love. (Likutei Moharan Kama 33:2).
In this teaching, R. Nachman describes a person who is sunk, in his words, in "the realm of the kelipot." This refers not to a minor sin or a spiritual decline, but rather a separation from the Jewish nation and a denial of Hashem's existence. This heresy finds expression in the cry, "Where is your God?," and it seems to the one who is asked - it seems to us - that this person is beyond remedy. R. Nachman, on the other hand, insists that there is certainly room for remedy.
R. Nachman's innovation lies not in the possibility of repentance even when one is of lowly spirit and a sinner (for our Sages already discuss this in the stories of R. Elazar ben Dordaya and others), but rather in the reason for this possibility of repentance. R. Nachman does not make use of the accepted reasons - that the Holy One opens His hand to sinners, and that He does not desire the death of the person, but prefers that he return from his evil ways and live. Rather, R. Nachman's argument is based on his ontological perception of Hashem as filling all the worlds.
In order to explain the possibility of teshuva (repentance) in any situation, R. Nachman relies on Hashem's ontological presence in all of Creation. What determines whether a person is able to engage in teshuva from the place where he is, is whether Hashem's presence dwells in that place or not.
That the key to understanding this idea lies in transferring the focus from Hashem's willingness to accept the person's repentance to the possibility of the person actually repenting.
When we discuss Hashem's willingness to accept the teshuva of a person in any situation, we have no use for the issue of Hashem's location. The person must come to Hashem's gates. Sometimes the road to these gates is long, at other times it is shorter, but the question remains whether Hashem will open His gates to this person who is sullied with sin. Most opinions on the possibility of teshuva revolve around this decisive moment. Will Hashem remove man's sin or not? Will He forgive him? Will He "forget" the past in favor of a new and bright future?
This question is one that is taken from the "transcendental" school. It assumes the existence of a God Who is removed, exalted and holy, and on the other hand the existence of man who is despised, lowly and far removed, whose sins have served only to deepen the abyss that separates him from God. Teshuva is a bridge over this abyss, and the key question is whether it can, in fact, be bridged and whether teshuva is broad enough to cover the nakedness of man as he stands before his God.
R. Nachman, in the above excerpt, ignores this question completely. Whether there is any remedy for this heretic is a question that occupies R. Nachman, too, but not from the point of view of Hashem's willingness to pardon. Rather, he addresses the question from the point of view of the person's own ability to repent and return. Let us examine his words very closely in order to understand more precisely the distinction.
R. Nachman draws a connection between Hashem's willingness and teshuva; let us pay attention to the order of the process:
And from there you may bring yourself close to the blessed God, and return to Him in complete REPENTANCE (teshuva)...
And as man rises from one level to the next, he approaches nearer and nearer to the blessed God, and may come to KNOW Hashem with a great understanding....
And then he may approach nearer to Hashem and may bring himself to LOVE Hashem with a great love.
In these sentences, R. Nachman describes repentance, knowing and love. But, in contrast to our expectations, it is not these three entities bring one to achieve closeness, rather, we start with closeness and presence, which then lead to repentance, knowing and love themselves. The closeness is the point of departure, and the teshuva, knowledge and love are the result.
According to the transcendental approach, teshuva, knowledge and love serve as the bridge between man and Hashem. (For example, the Rambam's explanation of "What is the way to loving and fearing Him?," as we saw in the previous shiur.) But according to the immanent approach to Divinity, the closeness is a basic assumption. It is the starting point, and the feelings and familiarity with Hashem are its results. Thus R. Nachman sets down one of the most important fundamental principles of his philosophy.
As we saw in the previous shiur, R. Nachman teaches that the fact of Hashem's presence filling all of the world creates a permanent and ongoing reality of dialogue between man and God. There is no object, no moment, no event in which God fails to address man. And immediately a question arises, in light of this total perception: How, then, is heresy possible? How is it possible that there are doubts? According to this approach, God's voice addresses man incessantly; how, then, can man stop his ears from hearing?
The answer to this question is the concept of concealment. Denial of God's existence, states R. Nachman in the most important principle of all his teachings, is the result of concealment. A person who denies God, who questions with antagonism, "Where is your God?," arrives at this heresy because God is hidden from him. Heresy, according to R. Nachman, is a subjective concept, reflecting a momentary situation of a person towards God.
In this idea R. Nachman teaches that the biggest news in the world is not teshuva, but rather denial. In a world in which Divinity is thousands of light years away from man, the greatest discovery and wonder is man's ability to turn to something outside himself, to something outside his world, to far-away places that are only specks of light, beyond the mountains of darkness in which he finds himself. But in a world where everything by its very existence declares the praise and glory of God, in which God's voice echoes from one end to the other - how can a person not believe?
Here R. Nachman introduces the important principle of the different ways of revelation in existence. Divinity is in everything, but the garments, the contractions and the concealments change from one phenomenon to the next. The more garments, the more contractions and concealments, the greater the attention with which man is required to listen for God's voice. The voice is weakened, the appearance is blurred and the feeling is dulled - but the voice never ceases to call out.
A person who blasphemes is one who does not lend his ear to God's voice calling out to him. And the less he listens, the further he rolls into realities in which the concealments are so great that it is exceedingly difficult to listen to God's voice - but in truth it is still there.
Human consciousness claims for itself the crown of free choice. It is man himself who decides whether to remove God from his life or whether to include Him. It is man who decides whether there is a God or not. (Extreme existentialism nullifies completely the possibility of making an objective statement, and so belief in God becomes a decision that I have a God - just as the denial of God is really the assertion that for me there is no God.) R. Nachman, from his point of view and in his spiritual world, leaves man with no choice. He leaves no place for - one could even say that he refuses to take seriously - the heretic.
The heretic stands proudly before R. Nachman and declares, with complete confidence, with disdain and superiority: "Where is your God? There is no God!" This is his firm conclusion. R. Nachman, unruffled, responds: "When you say there is no God, what you mean is that He is hiding from you. And the reason that you arrived at this consciousness is not because of your objective faculty of judgment, or as a result of a thorough analysis of the situation from beginning to end - as you might have supposed. Rather, it arises from the present condition of your relationship with God; one of "hiding of His face." And therefore your conclusion is not an objective ontological conclusion, but rather the result of a distressing problem that you have encountered within the framework of the continuous relationship between you and God.
Therefore, R. Nachman maintains that the knowledge that God is everywhere, that His call penetrates to the depths of all existence, is what guarantees man's ability to repent; in other words, to hear and return and cleave to God's voice that is to be found with him and with all of Creation.
How do we reveal the Holy One Who exists within the hidden reality? How may we rediscover the concealed Divinity? R. Nachman provides two different descriptions.
The first is brought in the explanation of R. Natan, his student, on one of his teachings which R. Natan recorded only partially:
These words, too, are not well organized, and there are parts missing here too. Apparently the gist is that he speaks in praise of holy speech, for holy speech is likened to the Divine Presence, to Mashiah, to Divine inspiration, to the resurrection, to the unification of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and His Divine Presence. And all of this is explained from the words of the above teaching. But it is not set out properly, and the language is not accurate.
Nevertheless, all are ------: it is explained from this teaching that speech accompanies man even to foul places, like a mother who carries her baby with her wherever she goes, and therefore speech is called "the mother of the children." And this is the meaning of, "For so long as I speak of him, I shall still remember him" - i.e., that even if a person lies somewhere, God forbid, even in the lowliest place, even in a place of foulness, nevertheless by means of speech he may remind himself of the blessed God. In other words, even if he is in some place, if he strengthens himself even there to utter always holy words of Torah and prayer and meditation, he may remind himself of the blessed God - even there, in the lowliest places, which are likened to places of foulness, even if he fell to the place where he fell. For this speech does not allow him to forget the blessed God.
This is similar to (the Divine promise): "For so long as I speak of him, I shall surely remember him." So long as he speaks of the holy God - which is holy speech, this speech will not allow him to be forgotten by God, for the speech remembers and reminds him to strengthen himself with the blessed God in the place where he is. Understand this thing well, the great power of speech. This is wondrous and awesome advice for one who seeks the truth, that his world not be lost altogether, God forbid..." (Likutei Moharan Kama 78).
R. Natan testifies that in this teaching, R. Nachman identifies "holy speech" with the Shekhina (Divine Presence) and with ruach ha-kodesh (prophetic Divine inspiration). Both of these are clear expressions of Divine inspiration that comes upon the world and upon man. Moreover, he goes on to call such speech "the speech of the blessed God." This extreme expression may be interpreted as speech ABOUT God, but it may also be interpreted literally - as the speech of Hashem Himself. (This seems to be the intended meaning, for example, in the following statement: "Prior to prayer one must make his spirit cleave to the Creator, and as a result of this cleaving the words will come out of his mouth by themselves." [Sefer ha-Middot, Tefilla, 76]. Likewise, the Ba'al Shem Tov describes the aspiration in prayer to reach the situation where the worshipper becomes Hashem's mouthpiece, through which the words flow of their own accord, without consciousness or involvement on the part of the worshipper himself.)
The same aspect of immanence which we described previously as existing within all of Creation, is also to be found within man himself. When a person speaks words of holiness, he actually reveals and joins himself to the Divine voice that echoes within him, too, and when this voice is revealed then "this speech will not allow him to forget the blessed God… for the speech remembers and reminds him to strengthen himself in the blessed God in whichever place he stands." This is how R. Nachman interprets the pasuk, "For as long as I speak of him, I shall surely remember him." By speaking of Hashem, I am reminded of Him. This duality of man's speaking about Hashem, which is also in fact the speech of Hashem Himself – speech that on one hand "remembers" and on the other hand also "reminds" – is the whole secret.
"For this every righteous one prays to You – for a time of finding' – (meaning) that a person should pray to have the merit to find the point that speaks to his heart at that time. One must constantly strengthen himself to increase his prayer and supplication and dialogue between himself and his Creator in order to arouse at every moment his good point, that it may illuminate his heart to the point where all the abominations and evil desires that exist within his heart will thereby be nullified, for these are expressions of the "foreskin of the heart." For the crux of the nullification of the "foreskin of the heart" is by joining oneself to his point of holiness through the utterances of his mouth, which pour his supplication before the blessed God and arouse his good point. (Likutei Halakhot, hilkhot melamdim, law 3).
The immanent aspect exists. Hashem's voice exists within the recesses of man, whether he desires this or not. The fact of the Holy One filling all the universe is a deterministic fact that is not open to choice. The question is whether man sees it or not, whether he hears it or not, whether he feels it or not. When man allows Hashem's voice to sound forth from his own throat, he becomes aware of that voice, it is revealed to him, and a unity and closeness are created between consciousness and essence, between the speech and the voice. The essence itself remembers by virtue of its natural aspiration to cleave to its Source, but it also reminds the person – i.e., the person's consciousness – to become its partner in this aspiration.
The glory of the blessed God calls out from everything, for all the world is filled with His glory. The glory of the blessed God calls out even from the stories of the gentiles, as it is written (Tehillim 96:3), "Tell of His glory among the nations" – that Hashem's glory calls out even in the stories of the nations. For His glory calls out constantly, beckoning and hinting to man that he should come close to Him, and Hashem will bring him closer with mercy and love and great affection. And this is why a person sometimes becomes enthused in the midst of his prayer, and begins to pray with enthusiasm and great desire, and the words flow easily and quickly from his mouth: this is the light of the blessed God within himself, as it were, that is garbed in himself and calls to him to worship Him. For this enthusiasm that a person experiences in his prayer is something of the blessed God Himself, as it were, as it is written: "He is your praise and He is your God" (Devarim 10:21) – that Hashem is Himself the praise and the prayer. And sometimes a person prays before the blessed God, as it were. But even when the blessed God removes and distances Himself from man, heaven forbid, he must still pray and cast his prayers after Him, as it is written, "Cast your lot upon Hashem" (Tehillim 2:19): that a person must cast and throw prayers after Him when He removes and distances Himself from man." (Sichot Moharan 52).
A different understanding of the same principle is brought in a teaching that we quoted in a previous shiur, in a different context:
Know that there are wicked people who labor and toil all their lives in order to uproot themselves from the blessed God and His Torah completely, for the holy point of Jewish sanctity that remains within them, although they are completely wicked, confuses them and brings them thoughts of repentance and fear of the great judgment, and as a result they have no pleasure from their sins and their desires. Therefore they lust and toil to achieve complete heresy in their minds, heaven forbid, such that they will have no further shadow of doubt inclining them towards the truth. But this requires exceedingly great toil, over several years – heaven forbid, for the Judaism that is within them does not give them rest, and constantly confuses them.
And know that among them are some who finally achieve what they desired, i.e., total heresy, heaven forbid, with no doubt of the truth – and then they immediately die and leave this world, and then they see the truth." (Likutei Moharan Kama 274).
Although R. Nachman is speaking here of the holy spark that exists within a Jew and not the Divine vitality which is universal, the principle remains the same. In order for a person to live in complete denial of God he must actively remove God's constant presence from within him, and this requires "exceedingly great toil, over several years." He explains the efforts of the heretic to prove and strengthen his heresy on the basis of the same inner spark that gives man no rest. (We quoted this teaching in shiur no. 3, in relation to the story about the clever man and the simpleton, in which the clever man is overtaken by an all-consuming obsession and goes traveling throughout the world with a view to strengthening and proving his denial of the existence of the king.)
R. Nachman in this teaching goes so far as to state that if a wicked person succeeds in removing the inner spark completely, his life will immediately end. This is quite compatible with his basic principle of no existence being possible for anything without Divine vitality.
Therefore R. Nachman's first piece of advice to a person who has sunk to a lowly level, who is assailed by doubts and heresy, is not to cease speaking words of holiness.
This speech is meant to connect man's consciousness with the inner spark that shines within him – even when he has sunk to the lowest level, to places where the inner spark – within him and within his surroundings – is covered and clothed with many layers of garments.
There is an aspect of this perception that disturbs us: the principle of "Remove your shoes from upon your feet, for the ground upon which you stand is holy," is a fundamental and important one. "Not everyone who wishes to partake of the Name may do so" (Berakhot 15b). A person must make himself worthy – or, in other words, he needs some backing for his speech and his prayer. There is a spiritual level where a person lacks the merit to address words of holiness to Hashem.
R. Nachman employs this idea in an expression borrowed from the dimension of space rather than the dimension of the soul. He does not refer to one of "lowly spirit," of someone who is "despicable," but rather of one who finds himself in "foul places." It is apparently no coincidence that he selects this expression. The Gemara in Berakhot discusses "foul places":
"…It is forbidden for a Torah scholar to stand in a foul place, since it is impossible for him to stand without thinking thoughts of Torah… If he finds himself coming to such a place then he should not recite Shema, and moreover – if he was in the midst of reciting Shema and he arrives there, he should stop. What happens if he does not stop? Rabbi Miasha bar Beriya said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: Concerning him it is written, 'I too will give you laws that are not good and judgments by which you cannot live…'" (Berakhot 24b).
Although the Gemara does also bring a dissenting opinion on this issue, even the other opinion accepts the problematic nature of uttering words of holiness in a polluted place (he should place his hand upon his mouth and recite, etc.)
Two basic assumptions lie at the foundation of this perception brought in Berakhot:
- It is neither fitting nor appropriate to lower the elevated Divinity to places of foulness. A person seeking to approach Hashem must sever and elevate himself from the lowly material reality – at the very least on the physical level.
- A person is required to have backing for his words and prayers. He must prove that he is worthy of standing before Hashem and mentioning His name. For this reason he must distance himself from pollution and filth, both in the physical sense and in the spiritual sense.
R. Nachman, as we saw in the previous shiur, allows for a person in all his lowliness – a lowliness which he calls "foul places" – to speak words of holiness. I am not convinced that R. Nachman means hereby to contradict directly the opinion in the Gemara quoted above, and perhaps even he himself would not permit holy speech in a place that is literally polluted, in the physical sense. But in his very selection of this concept in order to describe spiritual degradation, and in the license that he gives to speak words of holiness in this spiritual situation, he appears to call into question the basic assumptions underpinning this opinion in the Gemara.
First, he calls into question the assumption that it is neither fitting nor appropriate to bring Divinity down into foul places. Based on the principle that "no place is devoid of Him," R. Nachman maintains that Divinity exists even in the lowliest and most polluted of places. It is hidden, it may even be invisible, but it continues to exist even there, giving life to that place. By making mention of Hashem, by speaking words of holiness in that place, a person is not "bringing down" or "degrading" Divinity, but rather revealing and exposing it.
Second, R. Nachman questions the assumption that a person must "justify" and construct a "cover" for his appeal to Hashem. Here, too, on the basis of the principle that Hashem "fills all the universe," he claims that Divinity exists within the person, it represents the eternal and constant basis for his appeal to Hashem, and again on the basis of the same idea - that he is simply "revealing" it. (In several places, R. Nachman's advises people even when he does not fully understand or identify with them. This applies in cases such as a crisis of faith, or prayer, or even concerning a debate that a person conducts within himself. In general, the interpretation of such advice tends towards the direction of the mystical power of the words, but it appears that on the basis of the above we may suggest a more accurate interpretation of such suggestions. The function of the words is to reveal the essence that exists continually within man. The words are a conduit or a vessel with which the person digs beyond his "shell," to access his inner spark.)
Torah thoughts, according to R. Nachman, do not require that a person first exit the polluted place where he finds himself (although it should be noted again, lest any misunderstanding lead to error, that R. Nachman – as opposed to the Gemara, speaks of something that is "comparable" to a foul place - something that is not physical at all. By choosing this concept and applying it to the spiritual realm, R. Nachman is not rebelling against the halakhic ruling of the Gemara; rather, he questions the principle behind it) since even there some Divinity exists. A person who has fallen must, to his view, speak words of holiness, and thereby reveal the Divinity that exists in that place and the Divinity that exists within the deepest recesses of his own soul.