Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Chabad - Atzmut was placed in a body/R' Posner explains

As an answer to R' Micha's question regarding the Lubavticher Rebbe statement that Atzumut was placed in a body. I am providing the explanation given by the noted Chabad teacher - Rabbi Zalman Posner

excerpted from "The Splintering of Chabad" Jewish Action Fall 2002.

I had previously cited this article.


How did the deification come about? (Let me emphasize that the deifiers were sharply condemned by Lubavitch rabbanim and their words repudiated. But freedom of speech, here and in Israel, is a reality and all one needs is money to put up billboards or advertise in The New York Times.)

It started with a statement made by the Rebbe. At the yahrtzeit of his father-in-law in 1951, the Rebbe, referring to the Rayatz (Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak) stated, “Atzmut was placed in a body.” Atzmut means “essence,” the irreducible, unvarying core; God Himself, the Rebbe was saying, was “placed” in a human body. Some Mashichists, however, drew an inference, and then proceeded to draw inferences from that, culminating with deification.

The language of the Talmud calls for more than dictionary definitions. To understand Talmudic language, the student must have a background in Talmudic thought, or a teacher to explain the full meaning. Similarly, Chabad’s distinctive language can be misunderstood by the neophyte. This awareness is crucial in understanding what the Rebbe said.

A moment to define “atzmut.” We must be aware of two aspects when discussing man or God: essence and extension. In terms of man, essence is his soul; extension includes his thoughts, words, actions, ideals, etc. The latter is variable, developing, modified, even rejected and replaced. The essence remains constant.

For man, understanding God can mean understanding His thoughts—as expressed in Torah, or His emotions, such as kindness and compassion as manifested in His behavior towards us. But these are not His “essence” which is beyond us; God’s thought and actions are extensions of Him, similar to the rays of the sun being extensions, not the essence, of the sun.

Man’s awareness of self is a barrier between him and God. His acceptance of mitzvot—and the self-discipline involved in that acceptance—is a measure of self-nullification before God, a step closer to Him. The greater his self-nullification, the closer he approaches God, the more he is aware of Him. Ultimately he can reach the state of merkavah, when he becomes a “vehicle” for God. When this state is attained, as it was by the Patriarchs, man has no personal will. Man’s only will is God’s.

When the Rebbe, referring to his father-in-law, stated “Atzmut was placed in his body,” this, I would suggest, is what he had in mind: there was no separation between him and Him, no barrier, not that Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak is God but that he is one with God. However, some tragically concluded that the Rebbe had implied a synonymy between his father-in-law and God. It didn’t take too much for some to then characterize the Rebbe himself in that way.

Not surprisingly, no one is big enough to correct the deifiers, to convince them that they err, even though their view is not part of Chabad teachings. Though they are vocal, the deifiers are small in number and enjoy little respect. They act without the support or approval of any individuals of stature within the Lubavitch community.

A little lesson in Chabad that might further illuminate the issue: The haftarah of the first day of Rosh Hashanah contains three words that demand explanation, “Kel dayot Hashem” (I Shemuel 2:3) roughly translated as, “For God is the God of intelligences.”

Why the plural, dayot? Kabbalah refers to da’at elyon and da’at tachton, supernal intelligence and “lower” intelligence. Two perspectives exist; either God’s view, which is spiritual, or man’s view, which is material. Thus, depending on the perspective, a question may have two responses. For example, if one were to ask, “What is ‘reality?’” the answer may be either the physical (body) or the spiritual (soul).

Da’at tachton—From our view, which is that of the physical universe, the very existence of the Creator is in dispute; we and our universe constitute yesh, existence, tangible, palpable reality, while the spiritual source is perceived as ayin, nothingness. God is hardly imaginable, taxing man’s finite intelligence. Man and his science deal with the observable; Man sees his body, while he can only imagine his soul.

Da’at elyon—The rare individualperceives the Creator, the source of all, the absolutely transcendent, as the true yesh. He sees the physical, the created, as ayin, nothingness, and totally dependent on the Source of all for its existence.

Man, with his almost ineluctable da’at tachton, can appreciate, to some degree, God’s wisdom as expressed through Torah. Through learning Torah at the highest levels, man and God merge; Man’s only thoughts are then God’s, since he is totally immersed in Torah. Another level of unification with God can be attained through man’s awareness of God’s “emotions.” Sensing his own insignificance, his dependence for every breath on God, man may experience his “nothingness” in the presence of greatness. He attains bittul, nullity, but still retains his sense of self, his existence, his physicality. His bittul, nullity, is not total, not absolute.

A few exceptional individuals can attain the highest plane—that of merkavah, becoming a “vehicle” that has no will of its own, an absolute ayin, focusing only on his “driver.” Hillel would apologize to his students when he interrupted learning for a bite of lunch. “I must do a kindness for my poor body,” he would say. Hillel was not his body. His body was simply a container for his soul, the real Hillel. In contrast, at the start of our daily prayers we thank God for the “soul You placed within me.” We identify ourselves primarily as bodies that have souls placed within. We, alas, are not Hillels.

We can now understand what the Rebbe meant. When the Rebbe spoke of “Atzmut placed within a body,” he was implying an incredible unity between God and a human. As stated above, atzmut or etzem, refers to the essence of the subject, not an extension, but the core, irreducible, constant, indivisible. In terms of a human, extensions may include thought, actions, emotions, beliefs, all subject to variation, growth, development, rejection. Core is unvarying, concealed. Etzem, transcending any manifestation of God including thought (as in Torah), refers to God Himself.

We noted earlier that man may attain a degree of bittul, self-negation, yet retain an awareness of self, the bittul being less than absolute. Any degree of bittul is praiseworthy for so few achieve any diminution of ego. Rarely does any man attain total bittul, as did the Patriarchs. Rav Yoseph Yitzchak, his successor asserted, achieved this level of bittul. “Atzmut placed in a human body,”—the physical body of the Rebbe did not conceal God within man. However, the Rebbe’s words were totally misconstrued and the result was—deification! Deification means seeing man as God; the Rebbe, of course never, said or, implied man could be synonymous with God. The distinction is awesomely critical. Unfortunately, there are those who failed to make the distinction and they are embarked on a treacherous path.

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