Poem published in Qarrtsiluni
ALEPH rabbinic program Q and A

Reb Nachman on holy disagreement

In the Halakha and Paradigm Shift class I'm taking this spring, we were asked to choose among a list of texts to translate and teach. The central question we were asked was, how might this text inform an understanding of the halakhic process, the study of halakha and the creation of halakha? I wound up working with a short piece by the Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov, from his work Likkutei Moharan. It's a fairly mystical text -- not something I would have associated with halakha, which I suspect is part of the point. Reb Nachman writes (what's in parentheses below is my attempt to contextualize/explain; the translation is my own):

Know that the world was created through opposition. In order for the world to be created, there needed to be a vacant space; without that space, all that could exist was the Ein Sof (Without End, e.g. God's limitless infinity) and there was no place in which the world could be created. So divine light withdrew itself to the side, and God said "Let us create a vacant space," and within that space God made all of creation, the days and the middot (divine qualities), by means of God's speech, as is known: "In the words of God, 'Let us make the heavens and the earth,' etc."

This is the essence of our disputes too: were all the wise scholars of one opinion, there would be no place for creating the world! Only by means of the opposition between them, as they disagree with one another and pull toward one side or the other: by means of this, they create a vacant space (which is like the vacant space within God which was a prerequisite for creation), a withdrawing of light to one side, and within that space is the creation of a world by means of speech.

All the words which they speak are for the sake of the creation of a world within the space between them. Wise scholars create all things by means of their words, as is written (Isaiah 51:16), "And say to Zion, you are my people." Don't read "my people (עַמִי)," read rather "with me (עִמִי)" -- (imagine God saying) just as I formed heavens and land with My words, so you have done the same.

As is written in the introduction of the Zohar: one needs to bring light, but not to speak too much, only as much as is required for the creation of the world. Remember, when divine light flowed into creation, the vessel of creation couldn't tolerate that increase of light, and the vessels shattered, and in the breaking of the vessels the klipot (shells or shards) came into being. So if one speaks too many words (it's like the excess of light at the beginning of creation), and through this one may cause a kind of cosmic breakage. This is what happens when light increases too much: the vessels break, and the klipot come into being.

Reb Nachman opens with the assertion that creation required opposition. Before God withdrew God's-self and created an empty space within God's-self (in the Lurianic cosmogony -- Rabbi Isaac Luria's narrative about the creation of the universe -- this is called tzimtzum, which one of my college professors called the "bagelization" of God) there was only undifferentiated divinity. In order for the cosmos to come into being, there needed to be differentiation and duality.

Torah tells us that God created the universe with divine speech: "'Let there be light,' and there was light." Just so, Reb Nachman teaches, we too create universes with our speech. When Torah scholars disagree with one another, a space is created between them, and in that space, the world of halakha comes into being. Like God, we too create worlds with our words.

In the classical kabbalistic conception, tzimtzum was followed by an influx of divine light which was followed by the breaking of the vessels. God's light was too powerful for the vessels to hold, and creation shattered; our task is to find the sparks of holiness which remain in the shards of our world and to lift them up. Here, too, Reb Nachman draws a parallel between God's actions and ours. Our words can be like divine light in the good way -- we can illuminate and create -- but they can also be like divine light in a destructive way. If we speak injudiciously, we may cause breakage.

How can this text inform an understanding of the halakhic process? I understand Reb Nachman to be saying that differences of opinion are a holy and necessary part of what we do. If we are all in accord, then there's no movement and no change. If we disagree (in a respectful and productive way), then the tension of our disagreements makes space for creativity. It's only when we pull in different directions that we're mirroring God's divine act of creating the world. It's almost Hegelian: we need thesis and antithesis in order to move forward.

I also understand Reb Nachman to be offering a word of caution. We need to speak and to disagree, but not too much, lest the force of our disagreement cause destruction. We need the tension between one viewpoint and another, but if we become too strident, the vessel of the system we're co-creating may shatter.

For Reb Nachman, halakha isn't just a system of legal opinions and interpretations; it's also a means by which we mirror God's very creation of the cosmos. Pretty cool, eh? I'll be teaching this text to my class in a week or two, but would love to talk about it before then (Drew permitting, of course -- my online time still isn't what it used to be :-) so if you have thoughts in response, please chime in!