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  Konstantin Burmistrov. “He contracted Himself into Himself”: kabbalistic doctrine of self-withdrawal of God and its interpretations in European culture.
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Konstantin Burmistrov. “He contracted Himself into Himself”: kabbalistic doctrine of self-withdrawal of God and its interpretations in European culture.

One of the most quaint and original concept of the Jewish mysticism – the concept of zimzum, or self-contraction of the Godhead – is discussed in the paper. This concept was elaborated by the kabbalists since the early stages of their tradition but it became a full-fledged doctrine owing to a new school of Kabbalah established in Safed in the late 16th century and named after its founder, Yitzhak Luria. A new terminology and a new and more complex symbolism are the outstanding features of the literature of this school. There was much originality in the ideas concerning the zimzum which preceded the whole process of emanation and divine revelation. The main originality of this Lurianic doctrine lay in the notion that the first act of the Absolute God (Ein-Sof) was not one of revelation and emanation, but, on the contrary, was one of concealment and limitation. The symbols employed here indicate an extremely naturalistic point of departure for understanding the beginning of creation and their very audacity made them highly problematic.

The starting point of this theory is the idea that the very essence of Ein-Sof leaves no space whatsoever for creation, for it is impossible to imagine an area which is not already God, since this would constitute a limitation of His infinity. Consequently, an act of creation is possible only through “the entry of God into Himself,” that is, through an act of zimzum whereby He contracts Himself and so makes it possible for something which is not Ein-Sof to exist. Some part of the Godhead, therefore, retreats and leaves room, so to speak, for the creative processes to come into play. Such a retreat must precede any emanation.

This process works through the double beat of the alternately expanding movement of Ein-Sof and its desire to return to itself, hitpashtut ("egression") and histalkut ("regression"). Every movement of regression toward the source has something of a new zimzum about it. This double-facedness in the process of emanation is typical of the dialectical tendency of Lurianic Kabbalah.

From the 17th century onward kabbalistic opinion was divided on the doctrine of zimzum. Was it to be taken literally? Or was it to be understood symbolically as an occurrence in the depths of the Divine, which the human mind could only describe in figurative language? The question was a bone of contention in the many arguments that took place between the kabbalists and the more philosophically inclined thinkers who found kabbalistic speculation distasteful. So, there were different interpretations of zimzum from literal and mythological (mytho-poeic) to the philosophical.

The concept of zimzum was enthusiastically accepted and adopted by some European theologians and philosophers of the 17th-19th centuries like Ch. Knorr von Rosenroth, F.Oetinger, F.J. Molitor. This idea was in fact very close to views that developed in modern idealist philosophy, first of all that of Schelling who developed his own Christianized version of self-contraction or self-withdrawal (Selbsteinschränkung) of God before and for the sake of Creation. In its turn, Shelling’s views influenced much the outlook of the famous Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem who considered zimzum the most important kabbalistic concept having deep philosophical implications.

Therefore the concept of zimzum and its development in Jewish and European thought of the last four centuries represents a phenomenon unique for the history of Jewish-Christian intellectual relations. The Jewish mystical doctrine was appreciated by some Christian thinkers as an idea which turned out to be important for enrichment and implementation of their own tradition.