Classical Torah vs. Chabad: Negative Theology

The first gate of the Torah theology and ethics book Chovos HaLevavos is titled Shaar HaYichud. Shaar HaYichud contains a very clear and rational explanation of classical Torah theology.

Shaar HaYichud, Chpt. 10, explains that there are only three affirmative (positive) attributes we can ascribe to Hashem- He (permanently) exists, He is One, and He is Eternal.

The concept of “Negative Theology” requires that, except for the three attributes mentioned above, we only describe Hashem by employing negative descriptions, for example "He is not a body, He is not force in a body, He does not occupy space, etc."

Shaar HaYichud quotes the Philosopher Aristotle that "negating attributes of G-d gives a truer conception of Him than affirming attributes". This is because all affirmative attributes that are ascribed to G-d must of necessity comprise properties of either “etzem” (ie essence) or “mikre” (ie incidental properties). Thus Hashem, who created essence and incidental properties, cannot be ascribed these same properties He created in his creatures.

After a detailed explanation of this matter, Shaar Hayichud then reaches an essential conclusion regarding Torah theology: Man must apply his mind to know the Creator through the evidence of the works of the Creator, and not attempt to know the Creator in His actual essence. According to Shaar Hayichud, this level of knowledge is the height of knowledge that a person can actually reach, as referred to in the Torah: "Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the LORD alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other. " (Deut. 4:39)

These same “Negative Theology” concepts explained in Shaar HaYichud are fundamental to classical Torah theology. These concepts are also extensively explained and emphasized in the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim, in the Ramchal’s Daas Tevunos sefer, and in other Torah sources.

Chabad’s sefer Tanya is a fundamental Chabad book that is frequently described by Chabad as "The “one size fits all” life manual". If we now examine Chabad’s sefer Tanya, Chpt 33 (and in other places) advises us “to consider how He (God) permeates all worlds, both upper and lower”. This seems to be suggesting that man can somehow contemplate the essence of God that allegedly fills all the worlds (“ממלא כל עלמין”).

Tanya, Chpt. 33, also describes how God, “before” the Creation event, allegedly filled the “space” wherein the Universe was “later” created.

These concepts in Chabad’s Tanya appear to be very problematic for several reasons:

  1. Based on the classical Torah sources mentioned above, man cannot at all comprehend God’s essence.
  2. “Filling”, ie occupying physical space, is a physical property. God has no physical properties and cannot be described as occupying space.
  3. By describing God as “filling all worlds”, the distinction between the Creator and the created objects is eliminated on some level, opening the door to “shituf” (associating God with physical objects).
  4. Rav Saadyah Gaon in his Torah sefer Emunot V’Deot explains that space itself was created during the Creation event. This concept would certainly be consistent with scientific observations in the last 100 years that demonstrated how the Universe began from a tiny point of matter and later expanded. (Ramban states explicitly in his commentary on Genesis that the Universe began with a tiny point of matter). As a result, Tanya’s claim that any “space” or “makom” existed before the Creation appears to be in error.

Tanya’s theology appears to be a radical departure from classical Torah theology in various ways. Man can only know something about the Creator through examination of the works of the Creation, because man cannot know the Creator through examining His essence.

Classical Torah vs. Chabad: Negative Theology