Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), p. 357.
The identification of the all with God. Hasidic thought has frequently been described as pantheistic in that it tends to see God as the only ultimate reality, so that He is “in” all things. However, Hasidism, for all its stress on the immanence of God, does not deny, as does pantheism, the transcendence of God. Indeed, hasidic thought, far from identifying God with the universe, suggests that without God there could be no universe, whereas without the universe there is no change in God, or, better, from God’s point of view there is no universe at all. This is especially true of the Habad movement in Hasidism. A far better term for the hasidic view is, consequently, panentheism, “all is in God.”
In the early hasidic text Keter Shem Tov ([edition Zolkiev, 1794-1795] I, pp. 5a-5b), the parable is given of a mighty king who sits on his throne, situated in a huge palace with many halls, all of them filled with priceless treasures. When the true servants of the king refuse to be distracted by the splendors of the palace and its treasures but press on in order to enter the king’s presence, they discover to their astonishment that the palace and its halls do not really exist and that there is only the king in his glory and majesty.
In the same way, God hides Himself in the “garments” and barriers of the upper worlds and the cosmos. When we recognize that this is so, when we acknowledge that all is created out of God’s essence—“like the snail whose shell is formed of itself”—that in reality there are no barriers between us and God, then “all the workers of iniquity” are dispersed. The same text (I, p. 8b) understands the verse “Know this day, and lay it to thy heart, that the Lord He is God in heaven above and in the earth beneath; there is none else” (Deuteronomy 4:39) to mean not alone that there are no other gods but that in reality there is nothing but God. Frequently in hasidic literature the Midrashic saying (Num. Rabbah 12:4) that there is no place empty of the Shekhinah is paraphrased in Aramaic as let atar panui minnei (no place is empty of Him).
The opponents of Hasidism were not slow to attack these ideas as heresy. It was claimed that hasidic panentheism would inevitably lead to “thinking on words of Torah in unclean places,” meaning, to the erasing of the demarcation lines between the holy and the profane and between good and evil. Yet the disciple of the arch-opponent of Hasidism, the Gaon of Vilna, can write, “Apart from Him, blessed be He, there is nothing else whatsoever, in reality, in all the worlds, from the highest of the high to the lowest depths of the earth. So that one can say that there is no creature or world at all but all is filled with the essence of His pure unity, blessed be He” (Hayyim of Volozhyn, Nefesh HaHayyim [Vilna, 1837], Shaar 3, p. 67f.).
The only difference between R. Hayyim of Volozhyn and the hasidim, though it is an important difference, is that for the hasidim it is good to dwell on this thought at all times, whereas Hayyim of Volozhyn writes, “This tremendous matter is intended only for the sage, who can understand on his own the inner meaning of the idea by allowing his heart to run to and fro, for the sole purpose of inflaming the purity of his heart for God’s service in prayer. But there, is the greatest danger in too much contemplation of this theme.” The hasidim seemed impervious to the danger. A hasidic tale tells of R. Shneur Zalman of Liady, who was once asked, “What is God?” He is reported to have held up a piece of bread, saying, “This is God.”
L. Jacobs, Seeker of Unity: The Life and Works of Aaron of Starosselje.
E. Zweiful, Shalom al Yisrael, vol. 2, pp. 37-60.