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Contraction (Tzimtzum) as the Key to Jewish Psychology

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In Dr. Baruch Kahanas article in the book "Life as a midrash" written in honor of Proffesor Mordechai Rotenberg, the reader is invited to consider the seminal ideas of Jewish Psychology, a socio-psychological model based on Jewish sources, principally the Midrash, Hasidism, and the Kabbalah.

Rotenberg holds that it is Christian theology which under-girds Western psychology. As an alternative he proposes a Jewish dialogical paradigm. He argues that one may understand the fundamentals of an entire society by the way it relates to its deviants.

The first principle of this method is to make the distinction between the dialectical approach to conflict based on I or thou where only one party wins in contradistinction to the dialogical approach, I and thou. Here both parties co-exist even with tensions between them. The dialogical approach is based on the kabbalistic idea of contraction (tzimtzum).

Rotenbergs major contribution is this distinction between two vastly different approaches. Arising from different concepts of God both serve as an archetype for human behavior. According to Rabbi Isaac Luria, (and subsequently with Hasidism) the Infinite Deity constricted Himself in order to make room for the created universe. Rotenberg translates the religious concept of tzimtzum into the languages of the Social Sciences where tzimtzum makes the co-existence of different dialogues possible.

In an article prepared for the International Jewish Encyclopedia (2000), Rotenberg divides the tzimtzum model into four systems of psychological dialogue.

1. The Inter-generational Aspect: The Psychology of the Binding of Isaac (Akeda)
This approach relates to the inter-generational tension existing between parents and children. An alternate solution is offered. Instead of Freuds oedipal psychology in which inter-generational tension is resolved by patricide, the Psychology of the "Akeda" allows for the re-creation of a new inter-generational harmony.

2. The Intra-personal Aspect: The Psychology of Repentance
Here Rotenberg compares the cyclical metacode of repentance, which makes re-biographing possible (rewriting the failed past) by recomposition (re-composing ones life's melody), with the metacode based on the concept of original sin, which is deterministic and fundamentally linear. Rotenberg deems the deterministic code hermetic and the cyclical code hermeneutic, since it allows for diverse interpretations of the life story thus a person may live with his past in the present and in the future.

3. The Inter-personal Aspect: The Psychology of Mutual Responsibility ("Arevim ze baze")
This section relates to the idea of the self-realization accomplished by the individual through others within the community framework. Rotenberg calls this alter-centrism distinct from ego-centrism in which the individual grows by concentrating on himself only.

The alter-centric approach focuses on the other in accordance with the Talmudic dictum, all of Israel are responsible ("Arevim") for each other This is in contrast to the egocentric approach of western psychology. This is based on the Protestant ethic as expressed in the evolutionary idea of the survival of the fittest. In the "Arevim" psychology of mutual responsibility, the individual is not effaced, but rather contracted. This allows for the mutual I and thou relationship based on the inter-personal model existing between the two tribes of Issacher and Zevulun.

4. The Super-personal Aspect: The Psychology of the Different Levels of Hermeneutics
This section addresses the dialogue between the rational, material world, and the spiritual, mystical world consistent with Jewish Psychology in opposition to the dominance of the rational thinking of Protestantism which rules Western society. Jewish Psychology proposes the possibility of mediation between the world-view of the rational "Pshat" and the world-view of the mystical "Sod", with re-composition through exegesis, the mediating force between them.

In Life as Midrash (2004), one can find a model for utilizing and applying Jewish Psychology in therapy. This is described in a paper by Professor Rotenbergs daughter, the psychologist, Michal Fachler.

To understand how the idea of tzimtzum is used as a therapeutic tool several definitions are needed. They lay bare how this idea is applied in treatment.

These terms are delineated below: 1) The principle of tzimtzum, 2) I and thou 3) Descent for the sake of ascent, 4) recomposition, 5) desire-creation, (Yetzer-Yetzira) and 6) Repair (tikkun).

The Concept of Contraction (Tzimtzum)
The concept of tzimtzum is the principle described in the contraction and repair theory of the "Arie" (Rabbi Isaac Luria). According to his school, the deity constricted His Infinitude to make room for the creation of man and the world. In doing so he empowered man charging him with the responsibility for his own destiny and even for influencing the divine construct. This is how two-way relations are created between the Creator and the created, both contract themselves and complement each others creations. This model serves as a basis for tzimtzum on the human level. Tzimtzum may be articulated on an inter-personal level, between parents and children, between spouses and between friends. On an intra-personal level it is expressed between a persons different components, between different periods in a persons life, or between different personal inclinations. Several principles can be identified in conceptualizing tzimtzum on the human level:

  1. For every contraction (tzimtzum), another part expands.
  2. Tzimtzum makes room for others, thereby giving a person and others space to co-exist.
  3. The movement of tzimtzum is dynamic. Sometimes there is tzimtzum, and sometimes there is extension or expansion, and there is no one constant force that controls the other.
  4. The tzimtzum of an individual makes room for the other but is essentially different than self-effacement as it is commonly understood. In the tzimtzum the individual does not vanish or become erased but continues to exist.
  5. The tzimtzum of an individual passes on responsibilities and is cooperative with others thus not taking up all the space. The person needs others for cooperation. Thus, a contact requires mutual contraction.

To summarize:
Tzimtzum includes two main processes: contraction and expansion. The very process of constriction necessarily makes room for the expansion of some other element. Tzimtzum does not weaken but strengthens, and a connection (contact) is created between the constricting parties, which is stronger than the strength of either party.

I and Thou as Opposed to I or Thou
One may compare two types of inter-personal behavior-the I and thou pattern and the I or thou pattern. In the I and thou pattern, the individual and the other act in co-existence, and the I evacuates space for the thou, whereas in the I or thou pattern, there are hostile relations between the I and the you, and one will always be at the expense of the other.

Rotenberg compares two key narratives-the story of Oedipus and the "Akeda" (binding of Isaac) - defining the oedipal story as a dialectical story and the "Akeda" as a dialogical story. In both the inter-generational tension is described between father and son (patricide or filicide), but while the resolution proposed in the oedipal story is that the son prevails over the father-Oedipus becomes king of Thebes only after killing his father Laius. The resolution of the inter-generational tension proposed in the "Akeda" model is a dialogical continuity between Abraham and Isaac, even though a sharp sword is placed on ones neck, one should not despair of mercy.

The one resolution proposes annihilating the parental generation, whereas the other resolution eradicates the filicide allowing for continuity of the sons existence alongside the father.

Rotenberg attributes the I or thou pattern to the Oedipal-Prussian father model of the Protestant ethic. He argues that the model of the father, who does not contract himself in relation to his son, influenced Freuds psychoanalytical approach. In the Oedipus complex, rivalry develops between father and son, and the burden of change rests entirely on the shoulders of the son, the weaker party, who must efface his I. He must either identify with or become the stronger father. When he grows up, he overcomes his father. There is no room for a mutual connection between father and son, instead, a conflictual -dialectical pattern of strong versus weak, I or thou, is created.

Descent for the Sake of Ascent
The dynamic concept of descent for the sake of ascent perceives the world as a cosmic-human state of ebb Tide and flow, part of the persistent process of existential and human fluctuations.

Jewish Psychology distinguishes between the dualistic descent-and-ascent approach, where there is no connection between the two, and descent for the sake of ascent, where the two parts help each other exist and influence one another. Rotenberg asks whether the phenomenon is called manic depression or depressive mania. In the first instance, the depression is considered a natural and legitimate rest in the greater process of ascent, whereas in the second instance it is interpreted as a state that controls life, and the mania-as an escape from the ruling state.

The role of man is to believe that it is within his power to change reality, and consequently to utilize the descent in order to draw strength from it for the subsequent ascent. During the descent, one must not kill desire completely, so that it will be possible to fan the flame of the vital spark and get to the ascent. As the Baal Shem Tov said: It is like with coals, if one spark has remained, then one may fan them until there is a huge fire as before.

Re-composition (Re-biographing)
Re-composition = rewriting + composition. A person recomposes the song of his life by rereading his lifes events and experiences. The re-biography approach argues that a person has the possibility of choosing-from a multitude of interpretations-the interpretation that will allow him to integrate the stories of the past in his general life story. This is not about erasing reality but about the possibility of relating to the same reality in a variety of ways.

The re-biographing principle is based on the Jewish method of midrash, Jewish hermeneutics. The midrashic method, which offers interpretations for Biblical as well as Talmudic texts, frequently uses symbolic analogies which may be interpreted this way or that. It opens up opportunities for dialogic co-existence between different interpretations. All are valid, as in These and those are the words of the living God. This approach is opposed to Freuds psychoanalytical approach, in which the Oedipal complex is the exclusive key story for reading and understanding a persons biography. Hence, it is about a hermetic past that allows only a single fundamentalist interpretation for past states in opposition to a hermeneutic past allowing for a multitude of retroactive interpretations.

Desire-Creation ("Yetzer Yetzira")
The desire-creation model is the basis for a unique approach to sexuality and creativity. In this model, the human organism contains elements that are seemingly opposed (physical desire and spiritual creation). The two have a nuclear connection (both desire and creation, yetzer and yetzira, share a common Hebrew root). Co-existence of opposing principles is possible thanks to the principle of tzimtzum, here there is the dynamic of constriction and expansion; between physical and spiritual desires. This approach, in contrast to Cartesian dualism unifies body and mind. This is the Christian approach where a person conquers his desire and subjugates his body and thus develops his spirituality.

The "Yetzer-Yetzira" desire-creation continuum not only negates the repression of physical desire as a prerequisite for attaining spiritual creation, but it shares energy which may at times be expressed like this and at other times like that. The temporary constriction of physical desire may even serve as a springboard for creative development.

The Act of Reparation (Tikkun)(not Separation)

In Kabbalistic Hasidism the idea of tzimtzum is accompanied by the additional concept known as tikkun (repair). After Gods act of contraction for the sake of creating the world, a kind of cosmic explosion of light and sparks is described, which in Kabbalistic language is called the shattering of the vessels, in the wake of which the sparks of holiness became scattered in the upper and lower worlds and became encased in shells. A persons job is to repair the fracture by an action called raising the sparks. Instead of leaving the sparks in a state of disconnection and separation, a person takes an active role in recreating worlds by tikkun, by repair-by connecting the scattered elements. This action is reflected in a symbolic manner by the reordering of the letters. If we change the order of the letters in the word nittuk, disconnection, we get the word tikkun, repair. On the therapeutic level, the repair is the ability to attribute new meaning and to create new patterns from constructs seems to contradict each other, that are disconnected, but then they are rearranged in the proper order. As a result the notion of "Tikkun" lays the foundation for an optimistic psychology of "Chutzpa" which bestows the human being with the permission and power to influence God and his own future.


  • May 24, 2017 • Festive evening for graduates in honor of Professor Rotenberg’s life’s work
  • May 23, 2017 • Registration now open for 2017/2018 academic year at Rotenberg Institute – training program for educationalists and therapists - click for details
  • Apr 17, 2017 • 2-year program includes the fundamentals of Jewish Psychology – theory and practice
  • Jan 18, 2017 • Advanced program includes in-depth theory, training and personal supervision

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