If I could give a face to Tsimtsum– or the Kabbalistic idea of God’s contraction as a means of creation (as described by Rabbi Isaac Luria)– it would be a shy girl in an ill-fitting gym uniform in seventh grade. She is nervous, sweaty, and terrifyingly self-conscious. In short, she is not perfect. Why, then, would Tsimstum be a fitting characteristic to give God? He is an omnipotent, violent, bearded old-man-God. That God created and declared his creation “good” without a second thought. How could this God, with all his self-assured cockiness, exist in a state of constriction?
The first time I heard of Tsimtsum was in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi; it popped up again in discussions a few times afterward in my confirmation class, but it wasn’t until reading Liana Finck’s Let There Be Light that I understood the magnitude of Luria’s teaching. Finck’s novel itself is a blend of biblical retelling and autobiography. The whimsy with which Finck approaches Talmudic teaching is a pure delight to read (especially knowing how frustrated many older, more conservative, rabbis would be if they read it). God has a tiara and a magic wand. Abraham is a New Yorker. Jacob is a francophile, and Joseph lives with mermaids. It’s an odyssey disguised as a picture book.
Through this journey Tsimtsum plays a vital role: both as means of character development in the story itself, as well as a driving force for personal reconciliation with the idea of God. I had always assumed that a valiant, heroic God had to exist everywhere. This omnipresence was a defining feature of the God I grew up with, but Finck’s interpretation of Tsimtsum made me question that belief. What being could so expertly become small for the satisfaction of a greater majority? Finck doesn’t seek to answer this question head-on. Instead, she amplifies it with each incongruency and critical look at outdated perspectives. Namely, she makes God a woman. Not a high-achieving, unblemished “girlboss” who is appealing only in her similarity to masculine brazenness, but in a timid and lonely way that makes all the girls huffing their way through seventh grade P.E. feel seen. Finck’s God isn’t sacred, she’s scared. She is not a fractured voice from the clouds, she is someone who feels love and anger and loss. She is unhappy with her creations and walks the line between admiration and infatuation to repress her feelings of isolation. To me, Tsimtsum only makes sense if God is a woman.
This God feels and makes mistakes. She is both in charge and imperfect. Epicurus' trilemma be damned, I think there is so much more power in a God that accurately reflects humanity, as opposed to a God meant to strike fear into those they nurtured. Liana Finck and I agree on this one, as her God is, in a lot of ways, an artist struggling to create–and to justify her creations.
In this book of minimalist illustrations and dry humor, I find the beginnings of a Jewish feminist future. I think Let There Be Light offers great commentary on the space women take up in social settings. In the past, likening women to men has served as a jumping-off point for calls to action on many different platforms. Early feminist progress was defined by a sort of assimilation to masculinity, as opposed to an embracing of femininity. Gender equity today means understanding the discrepancies in social pressures and working to give every person an opportunity to succeed regardless of gender orientation. Then, the end goal was to make the working woman as productive and socially similar to the working man. And it worked… to some extent. The exaltation of hard-working women has become an impossible standard. In many ways, women are expected to be Gods. Expertly separating work and home life, and managing each flawlessly. This unrealistic standard leaves no room for vulnerability and the black hole that many women bear inside themselves in order to please the most amount of people just grows and grows.
Women have been presented with a choice: If we want true equality we cannot be human, we cannot falter, and we definitely cannot fail. But looking toward the future means disassembling this idea of perfection and allowing people, especially women, to feel and to be perceived in all of our strengths and weaknesses.
The “fatal flaw” of the God presented in Finck’s book is her fear of being seen. One of the most crucial conversations she has with Lilith (the truth-bearer in this adaptation) describes her inability to let Adam and Eve see her face because she is worried they will be disappointed in what they find. Over the years only the holiest and most observant Jews find out her secret. Thus begins her slow withdrawal from the world. As Abraham’s story bleeds into Isaac’s bleeds into Jacob’s, God is mentioned less and less.
Lurianic teaching is complicated at best, but Tsimtsum feels like such a uniquely feminine viewpoint that dwelling on it is important. Tsimtsum reminds me to take up space. I am not a vacuum and it is not my job to play host to whatever predicament I am burdened with. The God described in Let There Be Light is an omnipotent being with the emotional capacity of a thirteen-year-old girl. Maybe God can make mistakes, maybe God is an omnipotent omniscient force beyond my comprehension. Both of these options are equally unknown. But for the rest of humanity, they are not. We are not omniscient or omnipotent, and we are also allowed to make mistakes. We are perceivable and imperfect. And to me, a Jewish feminist future means embracing all of these contradictions–and contractions–and letting ourselves ebb and flow to the rhythm of the universe.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Ruden, Judith. "Making Space." 17 April 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 3, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/making-space>.
I was not familiar with TsimTsum and found the explanations here evocative but also approachable. I will definitely read Finck’s book. This thoughtful rendering has certainly inspired me.