The Dual Perspective of Reality: Where the Tanya and the Nefesh HaChaim Diverge

There exists a dual perspective of reality.

One perspective is reality as seen from God’s viewpoint, while the other is reality as seen from the viewpoint of Man.

In the words of the Zohar, this paradigm is called “mamaleh and misaveiv“, “filling and surrounding”.

1. Mimaleh: From Hashem’s perspective, the physical universe and the reality it contains, including human actions and the choices we make, is entirely suffused with Godliness and subsumed by the spiritual reality. From His unfathomable perspective, “Ein od milvado” is to be understood as written – there is quite literally nothing but Godliness. It is not merely that the physical world is a vessel in which spiritual light can settle. From Hashem’s perspective, the very vessel of physicality is itself composed of spiritual light. As the Zohar states, “Leis asar panui minei“, “there is no place devoid of Him”. This perspective is called “Mimaleh kol almin“, where pure Godliness is seen is filling every inch of physicality and each facet which makes up our corporeal existence.

2. Misaveiv: From our perspective, our universe makes up reality – the physical world truly exists. Though we certainly believe in a spiritual realm and a Creator who brings the world into existence every split second of every day, He has left room for human choice and natural consequence (reward and punishment) within a universe which, while connected, remains yet separate from His Essence and universal presence. This perspective is called “misaveiv kol almin“, where Hashem is seen as present, but surrounding His creation, giving it space and allowing it to exist as an independent reality.

The process which allows human beings to perceive the world as a true reality is known as “tzimtzum“, the process of constriction. This process is an illusion which makes it appear as if our physical world is devoid of Hashem’s presence. However, as the verse states, “Ani Hashem lo shinisi“, “I am God, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6); from Hashem’s perspective, the concentration of His essence present in our reality is the same now, after tzimtzum, as it was before tzimtzum.

Both Reb Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh HaChaim 3:4) and Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Likutei Amarim, Tanya, chapter 21) agree to the truth of this dual perspective of reality. (The question of whether R’ Chaim of Volozhin was following the opinion of his teacher, the Vilna Gaon, or whether this was his personal opinion is a matter of debate and has been addressed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Igros Kodesh 1:11) and Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler. (Michtav M’Eliyahu Vol. 5, p. 487)

Yet, as we well know, there was a major ideological disagreement between these two Torah giants. Where, then, did their opinions diverge?

The disagreement between the Nefesh HaChaim and the Baal HaTanya is not whether the paradigm of a dual perspective of reality exists. The disagreement is simply regarding what we are to do with our knowledge of reality as seen from Hashem’s perspective. Both of these Torah luminaries were bothered by a question: Why did the Zohar reveal this truth to us if it does not pertain to our consciousness at all, and what is the purpose of our knowing that, from a higher perspective, the entire world is permeated with the Essence of Godliness?

Both gave slightly different answers.

The Ba’al HaTanya, who codified the Chassidic view on this fundamental matter, writes that the reason this perspective was revealed to mankind is because even though it is not our personal experience, belief, at specific times, that Hashem’s perspective of “Ein od milvado” is the “emes l’amito“, the “highest truth”, can bring a person to true joy and enable him to serve Hashem in the most intimate manner. (Likutei Amarim, Tanya, chapter 33)

However, the Nefesh HaChaim, who, largely in response to the publication of Sefer HaTanya, codified the Misnagdic view on the matter, strongly disagreed with the notion that a Jew is allowed to enter into Hashem’s perspective of reality whenever he would like. Although he certainly believed in its absolute truth, R’ Chaim of Volozhin felt that growing accustomed to an outlook which saw our reality as being inundated with Godliness would destroy the system of free choice (God is present in every action!), terminate the halachic separations between pure and impure, holy and unholy, permitted and forbidden (God is equally present in everything!) and ultimately grant license to sinful behavior (everything that happens is the perfect Will of God!). (Nefesh HaChaim 3:3) Therefore, he held that a Jew is only permitted to enter into Hashem’s perspective at three distinct times: 1. during his recitation of the first verse of Krias Shema, 2. while he is praying Shemoneh Esrei. (Nefesh Hachaim 3:8) and 3. at times of grave danger. (Nefesh HaChaim 3:12)

The spirit and implication of these distinct viewpoints have impacted almost every area of Jewish life and the general hashkafa – worldview in these two camps. The way Jews from either camp are taught to view Hashem and His relationship to the world has a hand in shaping the way they relate to the general concept of Hashem and their understanding of the Jew’s mission in life. The thousands of subtle differences with respect to so many areas of hashkafa and even halacha (chief among them –  the great debate regarding the primacy of studying Gemara and Halacha [which deal largely with our perception of reality] over more overtly Kabbalistic and Chassidic works [which deal largely with Hashem’s perception of reality] and the debate regarding the primacy of the human mind/rational thought [which is largely limited to reality as we perceive it] over the human heart/emotional feeling [which is more easily given to perceiving Hashem’s transcendent reality]) can almost all be traced back to this fundamental difference of opinion.

Again – it must be stressed that with regard to the truth of the reality as seen from Hashem’s perspective, both camps are in absolute concurrence. It is only a question of how much we are permitted to allow that perspective to play a role in the way we view reality.

Just as it was a very valid fear that compelled the Nefesh HaChaim to present the Misnagdic view in his hardline stance on the matter, the Chassidic approach, as presented by the Ba’al HaTanya, came in response to a fear as well. The fear of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples was that by constantly viewing reality solely from our perspective and forbidding Jews to adopt the consciousness that God is truly everywhere and in everything, a relationship with Him could become stale and uninspired. A viewpoint which limited God’s revelation in this world to certain highly specific times, places, and activities could result in a void in which a Jew could spend much of his time disconnected from his mission and out of touch with Hashem’s involvement with every aspect of his life. Worse, if the Jew was not allowed the retroactive (post-sin) realization that, on the level of “emes l’amito“, even sin itself contains hidden Godliness, he could lose the ability to turn his failures into life lessons and his ability to continue his spiritual climb with the comfort that he is yet close to Hashem and that Hashem still desires his service. Stuck in the limited human perspective of reality, the Jew would oftentimes feel alone, distant from Hashem, and separated from His love. This could lead to depression, hopelessness, and utter despair.  The Chassidic masters felt that only by maintaining a dual perspective – seeing, with the physical eyes, our natural reality, while perceiving, with our spiritual eyes (faith), the lofty reality of “Ein od Milvado“, could a Jew live a life of constant connection with the Master of the world, a life full of passion, ever-present love and awe, and a wellspring of divine Love in which to dip his bucket whenever the storms of human nature would blow it over.

It emerges that both the view of the Nefesh HaChaim as well as that of Ba’al HaTanya were founded on the fear of extremes that could result from the approach of the other. While the Baal HaTanya feared that forbidding a Jew from entering Hashem’s perspective could give rise to a cold, dry, and Godless Judaism, the Nefesh HaChaim feared that allowing a Jew to constantly enter that perspective could lead to an inundation of an otherworldly perception and result in the destruction of our religion and its principle tenets. Both of these towering tzaddikim feared both of these devastating options. It is clear that neither ever intended for their students to go to one extreme in order to escape the other. Both extremes were seen as equally damaging, and measures needed to be taken to guard against both extreme results of dangerous imbalance. The question was only this: which measure represented a risk that was less worth taking? (See Shaarei Leshem Shevo V’achlama 1:11)

Today, as they have throughout our glorious history, these two paths yet lie before us. Both are founded upon absolute truth; at their source in magnificence, they stand in perpetual embrace. The question today is merely which fear needs to be addressed in our current generation. When we look at the problems plaguing our communities, which issue are they symptoms of? Do we suffer today from a lack of respect for halacha and wanton sin caused by the overindulgence in a reality that is not our own? Or do we suffer from a lack of respect for halacha and wanton sin due to the feeling that we have no real relationship with Hashem, that He is absent from many areas of life, and that He has forsaken us due to our negative actions? Can our current situation benefit from teaching our children to approach Hashem and his Torah from the sole perspective of our limited perception? Or might it call for carefully opening the dam and embracing the notion that our children must learn how to perceive Hashem’s perspective from behind the smokescreen of the human experience and allow the ripples of that perception to spread, in a healthy way, throughout every aspect of our Jewishness?

Ultimately, it will be up to the next generation of leaders to evaluate our situation and decide which road the masses will take. However, one thing is certain. To misunderstand the source of the disagreement, deny the legitimacy of either approach, misconstrue the true intention of the tzaddikim, or ignore the power we hold, as parents and teachers, to turn the lever and shift the paradigm in an attempt to address the specific needs of our particular generation, would all be errors of the most devastating kind.

May Hashem grant us the wisdom and humility to heed the call of our holy generation and may we merit, in doing so, to open the door for Moshiach, our righteous redeemer, speedily and in our days!

About the Author
Yaakov Klein is the author of Sparks from Berditchov: An Inspirational Guide to Avodas Hashem recently released by Feldheim Publishers. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Shira, where he teaches for the Illinois Center for Jewish Studies, writes a bi-weekly column for the Jewish Home and produces music.
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