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Dialog on Kabbalah and Postmodernism



Tzimtzum and ‘Differance’: Derrida and the Lurianic Kabbalah

Sanford L. Drob, Ph.D.

Revised 9-3-04


In one of his last meetings with Jacques Derrida, Emanauel Levinas is said to have asked Derrida to confess that he was in fact a modern day representative of the Lurianic Kabbalah. I learned of this from the death-of-God theologian, Thomas J.J. Altizer, who related to me that he himself had heard it from Hillis Miller on the occasion of Mller having introduced Altizer to Derrida himself. Whether apocryphal or true, the story seemed to confirm what I had suspected for quite some time, that an encounter with Derrida’s thought is potentially an important gateway to a contemporary Kabbalistic philosophy and theology.

Many of the major themes of Derrida’s philosophy and its relationship to the Kabbalah emerge from a close reading of his 1968 paper on “Differance.”  In order to show Derrida’s affinity to the Kabbalah I will engage in a reading of this paper, and related writings, from a Kabbalistic point of view, and conversely begin a reading of such Lurianic notions as “Tzimtzum” and “Ein-sof” from the perspective of deconstructive philosophy.  In the course of these readings I will have occasion to juxtapose Derrida’s notions of “differance” and the “trace,” his critique of “presence” and “logocentrism,” as well as his interpretation of the Platonic notion of “khora” with comparable Kabbalistic symbols such as Ein-sof, Tzimtzum, and din.  My ultimate purpose is not to show that Derrida is a Kabbalist, but rather to utilize his thought to deepen our understanding of the Kabbalistic symbols.  The comparisons I will make are meant to be suggestive only, as any thought of a fixed and final interpretation of the matters at hand, would be completely alien to the kabbalistic and deconstructionist notions I am considering 

In writing about these topics one feels confronted with more than the usual problems associated with presenting a group of interrelated ideas in a serial fashion. Isaac Luria, whose ideas were for the most part transmitted via the writings of his disciples, was once asked why he himself never recorded his teachings in writing.  “It is impossible,” he is said to have replied, “because all things are related; I can hardly open my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst and its dams had overflowed”.[1]  Derrida, on the other hand, is the author of more books than any other well-known philosopher.  Each, it seems, had a different response to the phenomenon of the bursting dam.



Derrida introduces the word differance as a pivotal term in his critique of the representational theory of language, the theory that words gain their significance by their direct association with experiences or things. Derrida adopts the view of the early 20th century French linguist, Saussure that “in language there are only differences.”  For Saussure, sounds, words and concepts, do not directly “attach” themselves to their supposed references, but rather derive their significance as a result of their difference from other sounds, words, and concepts in a linguistic system. [2]  Derrida adopts the term “differance” in order to refer to that which enables phonemes and ultimately words to be distinguished from one another.[3]  He creates a “difference” in the spelling of his term, “differance” by substituting an “a” for an “e” in such a manner that this difference cannot be heard in (French) speech and can thus only be discerned graphically.  This is fitting because the difference that Saussure had spoken of as the basis for semantic meaning is itself inaudible. As Derrida himself puts it: “The difference which establishes phonemes and lets them be heard remains in and of itself inaudible in every sense of the word.”[4]  Derrida asks whether we must not then “be permitted to refer to an order which no longer belongs to sensibility.”  He adds that in addition to being non-sensible, differance is also non-conceptual, inasmuch as concepts themselves already assume a differentiation on the basis of (sensible) names.


In isolating the notion of differance, Derrida believes that he has found an order that resists “one of the founding oppositions of philosophy,” the opposition between “the sensible and the intelligible.”[5] He says that he cannot expose differance, he cannot tell or show us what it is, because unlike sensible and intelligible things differance cannot be made present, i.e. it cannot be placed before us as an experience. Differance makes possible the very gesture or presentation of being present, but it itself can never be presented.  In telling us that “differance is what makes possible the presentation of being present” he crosses out the “is” to indicate that this is just a pointer for our understanding, and that differance certainly cannot be said to have any “being.”  Differance “exceed(s) the order of truth” but it is not itself a “something”.


The “Trace”

Derrida introduces the notion of the “trace” in order to indicate that all that we regard as present to consciousness, all that is in the temporal present, is only significant because it is marked by a “trace” of something else, something that is not present.  According to Derrida, language, and particularly writing


makes the movement of signification possible only if each element that is said to be ‘present’ appearing on the stage of presence, is related to something other than itself but retains the mark of a past element and already lets itself be hollowed out by the mark of its relation to a future element.  This trace relates no less to what is called the future than to what is called the past, and it constitutes what is called the present by this very relation to what it is not, to what it absolutely is not....[6] 


The trace is not only relevant to language, but to all experience as well, as any experiential present is unavoidably marked by a past and a future that contextualizes it and renders it meaningful.  A pure point of “presence” could have no significance whatsoever; in fact, it could not even be regarded as an experience at all.


For Derrida the “trace” is both the “general structure of the sign,” and “the general structure of experience as lived time,” a “retention,” in “minimal unit of temporal experience,” replacing the “Now,” and structuring experience via “difference.”[7]  The “trace” entails that all thought and experience is in fact inhabited (and constituted) by a “non-now” and, as Derrida later elaborates, by a whole host of other “outside” determinations, including the unconscious, materiality, animal nature, etc. each of which “experience” is originally meant to exclude.  The “trace” of what is other exists in what is thought to be the self-same.[8]


Differance is “Not”

Derrida tells us that “differance is not.  It is not a present being, however excellent, unique, principal, or transcendent.  It governs nothing, reigns over nothing, and nowhere exercises any authority.  It is not announced by any capital letter.  Not only is there no kingdom of differance, but differance instigates the subversion of every kingdom.  This makes it obviously threatening and infallibly dreaded by everything within us that desires a kingdom, the past or future presence of a kingdom.”[9]


Yet Derrida confesses that “in a certain aspect of itself, differance is certainly but the historical and epochal unfolding of Being...”[10] However,  since Being itself cannot be thought or said except through beings, which are already differentiated, differance is then actually, according to Derrida, “older than being.”[11]  Differance in this “aged” sense is the “play of the trace.”  The trace is that which always differs and defers, which “erases itself in presenting itself...”  For Derrida the system of differences is what is older than being itself. We thus find in Derrida a non-metaphysics, a non-philosophy that somehow manages to provide a touch of satisfaction to our metaphysical cravings.


However, there is no ‘name’ for the differance that is “older” than Being.[12]  This is not because it is ineffable and thus beyond naming, but rather because it “is the play which makes possible nominal effects.”  To name it would be to provide a unique, master-name; but since nothing can be named except within a matrix of difference, that which permits naming cannot be named or mastered by anything outside or anterior to that matrix. The proper name of this play that permits nominal effects would have to come outside that play, but we know that this is an impossible demand, similar to describing in language the relationship between language and the world.  Our project of catching hold to “that which makes naming possible” or “the relationship between language and the world” cannot even begin, because once we have begun we have already assumed and made use of that which we wish to name and/or explain.


Does Difference Create?

As we have seen, for Derrida, the structural view of language adopted from Saussure, dictates that concepts and even phonic differences actually issue from the system.  As such the “signified concept” can never be present in and of itself but only as part of an entire system of differences, each node of which has significance only be virtue of its differential status vis a vis each of the others.  Differance, for Derrida is therefore not a concept but “rather the very possibility of conceptuality.”   However, because differance itself is non-full, non-present, non-simple, it cannot be conceptualized as an origin or foundation. For Derrida, there can be no cause, or foundation for language, even differance itself, that eludes the play of differance.  Derrida uses the terms “constitute,” “produce,” “create” and “history” only in a strategic sense, and it is in this strategic sense alone that differance constitutes language “as a weave of differences.”  Derrida will later deconstruct “cause,” “constitutes,” etc.   Differance is in fact prior to and indifferent to the distinction between structural and genetic (or historical) points of view, which are themselves terms in a system of differences.


For Derrida, any effort to explain differance, already makes use of differance; if we go outside of differance in order to explain it we no longer avail ourselves of the system of language which differance alone provides us. There can be no explanation of differance within language and no explanation outside of language either, for the very notion of an explanation is itself linguistic.  Neither can we really give “differance older than being” a name. This is because any name we give it will already reside within a matrix of other contrasting terms that it, differance, presumably gives rise to. Naming difference is like being unable to name the King, we call him by the name of one of is own subjects and treat him as if he we were one subject amongst many. For Derrida there can be no unique or master name that fixes the essence of differance, but only a name that purports to name it, but which only succeeds in diminishing it.


Despite Derrida’s disclaimers that difference is neither theological nor metaphysical (see below) his thoughts here can provide us with certain insight into the problem of naming a theological absolute. For the Kabbalists, this is the problem of naming Ein-sof. Once an absolute is named it becomes an object like everything else to be contrasted with all other things. However, we might look at this matter from a somewhat different perspective and say that the very naming of Ein-sof (indeed the very naming of anything) carries with it and thus brings about the entire system of differences, and with it the origin of all possibilities, ideas and worlds. Ein-sof, the ageless, unknowable, unnamable place/space of all, explodes into a plethora of finite concepts and beings once it is named, as such naming opens the differential matrix which is both language and the world.


Differance and Negative Theology

Derrida readily acknowledges that his characterization of differance appears to have much in common with negative theology, in that his only means of characterizing differance is to say what it is not, “not being,”  “does not exist,”  “has no form,” etc.  Differance, as it turns out, is not everything. However, Derrida denies that differance has anything to do with negative theology which is always in his view “concerned with disengaging a superessentiality beyond the finite categories of essence and existence.” Difference has neither being nor “hyper-being.” For Derrida differance is actually quite neutral: as the condition for all language and thought, it is in a way more fundamental than any theological or philosophical notion or idea: It is “the very opening of the space in which ontotheology and philosophy produces its system and its history, it includes onto-theology, inscribing it and exceeding it without return.”[13]


In talking about differance Derrida will not and cannot operate according to the rules of philosophical and logical discourse which are after all contained by differance.  Instead he proposes a certain errant and adventurous wandering as his method:


If there is a certain wandering in the tracing of differance, it no more follows the lines of philosophical - logical discourse that of its symmetrical and integral inverse, empirical - logical discourse.  The concept of play keeps itself beyond this opposition, announcing, on the eve of philosophy and beyond it, the unity of chance and necessity in calculations without end.[14]


Derrida is here proposing a form of writing that is neither reducible to sensing nor thinking, nor to philosophy nor science.  This writing is a “play” which according to Derrida, is not to be reduced to or circumscribed to thinking, which is itself, in Derrida’s view, conditioned by a program that assumes certain binary distinctions that he wants to question and/or overcome.  To make a computer analogy: Derrida wishes to continue typing on the keyboard, but he has made a shift that has disengaged him from the program, any program; his keystrokes no longer have a pre-determined programmatic meaning but are just a free-play on the computer, not in “Windows”, not in “DOS”, etc. It is a play that enables him to go on a new adventure to some place unanticipated by the programmed discourse.  Differance is his opening to this free-play.  Of course by typing on the keyboard outside of any program he will not make sense, he will not even be thinking, but that, in a way, is precisely where he wants to go. 


The notion of a form of discourse that is somehow prior to or outside the laws of logic is familiar to students of mysticism. Stace, in his classic book Mysticism and Philosophy, argues that the reason why mystics have almost universally held there experience to be ineffable, and beyond language, is precisely because they are attempting to express an experience of the “one” that is prior to all multiplicity and thus outside the realm of logic (whose laws only apply to the relations between different things). No wonder that Derrida, by writing of a discourse that is prior to or outside logic, immediately raises the charge of “mysticism” in both the negative and most sublime senses of this term.


Derrida and Mysticism

Derrida’s own avowed reason for eschewing the “charge” of “mysticism” is that mysticism, if it stands for anything, stands for the proposition that the absolute, the unity of all things, or God, can be present to a subject in a singular act of mystical consciousness. When interviewed on this very issue he responds by saying:  “I am not mystical and there is nothing mystical in my work. In fact my work is a deconstruction of values which found mysticism, i.e. of presence, view, of the absence of a marque, of the unspeakable.”[15]  We will deal more extensively with the question of Derrida’s alleged mysticism in due course. Here I wish to focus only on the question of mysticism and “presence.” The question of whether mystical experience, and Jewish mystical experience in particular, is of an absolute presence in Derrida’s sense of the term, is not easily answered.  It should be pointed out that the vast majority of mystics describe their experience not in terms of a vision or perception (e.g. of the presence of God or other absolute) but rather in terms of a complete emptying of consciousness, a complete lack of sensation, perception, thought, etc.  The Kabbalist’s speak of their absolute, Ein-sof, as Ayin, nothing, and the experiential or mystical process they and, especially, the Hasidim describe is not one of experiencing the Lord’s presence, but rather one of bitul ha-Yesh, the nullification of the self, the transformation of Yesh (existence) into Ayin (nothingness).


The Thing is Hopelessly Divided against Itself

Derrida holds that a simple, separate unitary anything is itself hopelessly divided by the very operation that distinguishes it from all things.  By this he means to say that because any entity, experience or word, must implicitly contain within itself the system of differences that constitute it as itself, it cannot be separate, self-sufficient and unique. It is “divided” between itself and the system of differences beyond itself that provide it with its identity. Here we have yet another potential quarrel with the mystical experience of a singular, unitary absolute. The key here, however, is that the unity of the mystic is simple, but it is not separate; in short, the mystics’ “One” is completely indistinguishable from all other things, and in fact, leads to the conviction that on the deepest level, all things are reflected in each thing, and that, in effect, all is one, a proposition that is not far from Derrida’s own notion that each thing contains a trace of the entire system that renders it meaningful. 


Finally, the mystic’s “experience” of unity can be regarded as prior to the act, moment or gesture , (whether it is called differance, tzimtzum, creation, etc.)  that gives rise to multiplicity. Indeed, the Kabbalists hold that once multiplicity arises through the Tzimtzum and is later reinforced with the Shevirah, the “Breaking of the Vessels,”  division, alienation, and exile pervade the world, precisely because they are distinct from one another.


In the Lurianic Kabbalah, the world is torn asunder because the Sefirot as they were originally emanated were distinct unto themselves, and not connected with all other things. This condition (what the Kabbalists called the World of Points) is, like Derrida’s conception of a unique  and separate identity, is self-contradictory and must ultimately break apart, and eventually yield to a notion of a fully integral world in which a thing is itself only by virtue of its containing all other things within it (the Kabbalist’s World of Tikkun).  The Breaking of the Vessels is the result of a manner of thinking and being which seeks ultimate difference and distinctiveness.  Paradoxically, it is the very notion of difference as foundational for all thought that leads to an overcoming of difference: in Derrida through his notion of the “trace,” of an otherness that subsists in the core of all presumably self-same things, and which overcomes the boundaries between them.  By what appears to be a striking coincidence, the Lurianist’s invoke virtually the identical terminology of a “trace” (reshimu) that remains in the void created by the divine tzimtzum. Just as Derrida’s trace assures that difference is never complete, the Kabbalist’s trace assures that Tzimtzum is never total, and that a positive element remains in what would otherwise be a void of pure distinctiveness. We will have much more to say about the “trace” in Derrida and the Kabbalah later in this chapter.


The Demise of Differance

Derrida believes that differance provides us with a certain insight, yet he does not believe that this insight should necessarily be considered permanent. The efficacy of the thematic of differance, Derrida informs us, “may very well, indeed must, one day be superseded, lending itself if not to its own replacement, at least to enmeshing itself in a chain that in truth it never will have governed.”[16]  Derrida offers this as one more reason why differance is not theological.  The thematic of differance is neither a being, a word, nor a concept.  It is more akin to a strategy, something that Derrida does to get us to see things in a new way; to, for example, undermine the notion that “being” and “thought” are unquestionable rock-bottom characteristics of all that we can do or say.  But like the Buddhist “ferry-boat” (or the ladders of the 20th century philosopher, Wittgenstein), differance may well be discarded once its purpose has been achieved.  Derrida implicitly asks whether the same can be said of “God” or any other theological principle, that it has its transcendence, its possibility if being superceded, built into its very core. Perhaps we need not be so fast to discard theology.  Perhaps what is needed are theological concepts, or a theological system that by its very nature assures that it will itself be superseded and transcended.  Perhaps this is the very kind of absolute that emerges from Derrida’s writing and dare I say, thought. At the time of the differance essay, differance had some of the markings of just such an absolute.


We must indeed consider the question of whether the Kabbalah can indeed be regarded as a theological system that includes the possibility, even the necessity of its own revision, transcendence and super cession.  This topic, however, can only be fully addressed via a consideration of the Lurianic symbol of Shevirat ha-Kelim, the Breaking of the Vessels, which will be the subject of the next chapter.


Differance, Space and Time

Derrida points out that the French verb differer and the Latin verb differre have two distinct meanings, the first involving distinction, the second, embodied in the English word defer, involving “putting off until later” or a “taking account of time,” which Derrida summarizes with the word temporization:


Differer in this sense is to temporize, to take recourse, consciously  or unconsciously, in the temporal and temporizing mediation of a detour that suspends the accomplishment or fulfillment of “desire” or “will.”[17]


Derrida is here presenting a thematic in which differance is at the root and origin of both time and space.  Differance is not only a temporalization, but is also, for Derrida, a spacing, a spacing that permits the mere common meaning of “differance” to emerge, i.e. to be distinct, discernible, not identical. Derrida refers to differance as “the ‘originary constitution’ of space and time.”


The notion that difference is the origin of both space and time brings us to a fuller consideration of the relationship between difference and the Lurianic symbol, Tzimtzum.


Tzimtzum and Differance

Indeed, by now it should be apparent to those familiar with the Lurianic Kabbalah, that Derrida derives from his notion of “differance” much, if not all, of which the Luranists had attributed to the Tzimtzum, the contraction, concealment and judgment (din) that gives rise to finite distinctions and which is the origin of both space and time.[18]  For the kabbalists, Tzimtzum is that which allows finite things to be differentiated and to appear.   It is the contraction/concealment within the godhead that opens up a metaphysical place for being. Indeed, prior to the Tzimtzum there is no “being,” and Ein-sof is properly speaking identified with Ayin, nothing.   There is a sense in which Tzimtzum is itself identified with and equiprimordial to Ein-sof; for if God or Ein-sof is the “place of the world” then Tzimtzum is that which provides such place.  The place that Tzimtzum provides, however, is not a physical space, but is rather more properly understood as “spacing in general” or as that “space” which allows for the differentiation of objects, thoughts, letters, and words. Indeed, according to Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, the first Lubavitcher rebbe, the letters of language are the vehicles of Tzimtzum, as they are the primary means through which a finite world is differentiated and thus created. Tzimtzum is thus embodied in the letters of language, and we may be perfectly justified in speaking of the space that Tzimtzum opens, as the space between letters and words that allows them to function as units of sound and meaning.   The Lurianists emphasized the differentiating nature of Tzimtzum, by holding that the Tzimtzum is both derived from and in many ways identical to, the divine middah or trait of din, judgment, which the Kabbalists understood as the power in the universe that makes for moral, spiritual and material distinctions.  The deferring nature of Tzimtzum is revealed in the fact that the Lurianists regarded the Tzimtzum to be the origin of both space and time.  Space and time come into being because the Tzimtzum conceals Ein-sof from itself, or in more human terms, conceals the fullness of Ein-sof from the partial divine consciousness in man. The vehicles of this concealment are space and time, which continuously defer the presence of Ein-sof or God.  Finite things can exist, and remain distinct from the divine plenum, because their union with Ein-sof is continually deferred by both space and time.  Were Ein-sof to become fully present, space and time would collapse and the differential matrix that permits the existence of finite distinct entities would be overcome. Such differential/deferring, in Derrida’s terms, is for the Lurianists, the necessary prerequisite for creation. As such there is according to the Kabbalists a “trace” (reshimu) of the Tzimtzum in all created things.  Without such a trace, finite things would not exist as independent letters, words, objects or ideas.


Derrida considers the two senses of differance as temporalization (deferring) and spacing (differentiating) and asks how they can be joined.  With regard to the first of these senses, Derrida points out that a linguistic sign, by representing that which is not present, is actually traditionally conceived of as a deferred presence. This idea can provide us with a certain insight into how language is the embodiment of Tzimtzum.  Since language defers presence, it creates a certain distance between itself and the thing represented, thus limiting, concealing, and contracting the presence of that thing in its very (linguistic) reference to it.


Writing and Tzimtzum

In Writing and Difference Derrida implies that writing is what fills the void of god’s absence ; writing is  what takes place when God hides His face.[19] Derrida is here, however, speaking about a writing without rabbinic constraints that wanders and disseminates anarchically without any return, a writing that is a-theological, without foundation, without center (see “Ellipsis” where Derrida actually writes under the name Reb Derissa”).  According to Derrida, we should not mourn the loss of foundation and center, but rather celebrate the signifiers nomadic wandering and play, a suggestion which prompted/inspired Marc Taylor’s Erring.  In Kabbalistic terms we might say that as a result of the Tzimtzum, there is a concealment of origin and center. What remains is the decentered, errant language of writing, embodied in the 22 holy letters.  Of course, for the Kabbalists, these letters are not so errant as they are for Derrida, as they contain within themselves the potential for a return to (a restored) origin.


Derrida’s Tzimtzum: Reading Between the Blinds

In his later philosophy Derrida actually comes remarkably close to adopting the Tzimtzum concept as his own. In Memoirs of the Blind Derrida speaks of a seeing that is dependent upon a withdrawal or concealment of the very lines which constitute a drawn image.[20]  Such lines are akin to venetian blinds, which permit a certain seeing by structuring the light that passes through them.  Derrida goes so far as to compare the withdrawal of the lines and other structural elements in art to God who withdraws, leaving behind a visible world, pointing out that were we to see such a God without blinds we would be blinded by the intensity of its light.


Derrida shows a particular interest in eyes that see through the tears of mourning, pain and passion.[21] (Compare Hasidic “Weeping.”)


Meta-syntactical Status of “Differance” and Tzimtzum

According to Derrida, “Differance is neither a word nor a concept”[22] Derrida refers to it as a grammatical device.  It is a device that limits self-presence, and which therefore creates a space of non-intuition.  In doing so, it allows something other than immediate experience, including the irrational and the Freudian unconscious to enter discourse as philosophy. Derrida’s notions of Difference, the trace, and  Arche-writing as spacing” have much in common with the Lurianic concept of Tzimtzum, which, according to the Kabbalists, initiates a concealment of self-presence, which becomes the origin of all significance and meaning.  The Tzimtzum, is in effect, the creation of a gap or void (dilug) in the infinite self-presence of Ein-sof that permits an aspect of Ein-sof to be concealed from itself.  It is this concealment or un-consciousness that gives rise to the “space” of a finite world, and which enables finite significances to be delimited and distinguished from each other.  For the Kabbalists, Tzimtzum, is indeed a principle of difference; the Lurianists hold that it originates in an act of distinction and judgment. Again, like Derrida’s differance, Tzimtzum is largely a linguistic act; according to the first Lubavitcher rebbe, Schneur Zalman, it is essentially the concealment of divine being through language.


However, Derrida, in contrast to the Kabbalists, eschews any concept of a “self-presence” temporally or metaphysically prior to difference. As Scholem has pointed out, for the Kabbalists, Ein-sof is in a state of “autokartic self-satisfaction” prior to the Tzimtzum. This sounds like a condition of complete self-presence. As we have seen, for Derrida, such self-presence is an impossibility even for God.  Differance is what makes all things, all speech, all meaning, and all “being” possible; it is therefore only by a metaphysical slight of hand that we can speak of differance making an opening in a pre-existing plenum such as God or Ein-sof.  Differance, for Derrida, is “older than being.” In Derrida’s terms, “prior” to Tzimtzum, Ein-sof is nothing but an empty place-holder, a word that attempts to perform the impossible task of being a word outside the system of differences that makes words (and things) possible in the first place. Indeed, it is only after the system of differences has unfolded and its dialectic has run its course, that Ein-sof can move into position as a term denoting the plenum of infinite meaning and value.


Differences Between Differance and Tzimtzum

The Kabbalists thus place their symbols of Ein-sof, Tzimtzum, and Din, in a metaphysical, almost causal context, that Derrida assiduously avoids.  As we have seen, Derrida is very careful to disengage difference from any hint of theology, negative or otherwise. (At times the Kabbalists also write as if Ein-sof, Tzimtzum, etc. were pre-theological terms and that their referents, if indeed these terms have referents, are totally unsuited for worship and prayer).  Interestingly, Derrida himself tells us that if we were to speak of differance in conceptual terms it “would be said to designate a constitutive, productive, and originary causality, the process of scission and division which would produce or constitute different things or differences.”[23]  Differance for Derrida is neither active nor passive, but remains “undecided” as between the two.  It is neither an act nor passion of a subject but is rather something which only later gets “distributed into an active and a passive voice.” Understood in this (conceptual) way differance is perfectly analogous to the divine attribute of din (judgment) which the kabbalists speak of as occurring within the hidden recesses of the godhead, and which is the origin of the Tzimtzum, distinctiveness, finitude, and thus creation.


Our task here, however, is not to completely assimilate Derrida to Luria, or vice versa, but rather to comprehend how a new theological opening, a “gateway” to perhaps anew understanding of the Kabbalah might be opened through a juxtaposition of the two.


Kabbalah, Logocentrism and the Philosophy of Presence

Derrida is critical of what he calls “Logocentrism,” the philosophy of presence of the world to consciousness and of consciousness to itself. His main arguments against the phenomenological and metaphysical traditions revolve around his criticism of their efforts to attain epistemological certainty regarding that which is present to the human subject. As we have seen, Derrida’s conception of the trace is introduced to undermine the possibility of a “presence” that is not contaminated by an absence, a present that is uncontaminated by past and future, an inside that is uncontaminated by an outside, and a self that is uncontaminated by an other, and an intended meaning that is uncontaminated by an indefinite possibility of other interpretations.  As we will shortly see, even the self-evidence of Descartes “I think therefore I am” is brought into doubt by a trace which assures that the “I think” is never fully present, and because it is a linguistic expression, never fully independent from a whole linguistic matrix that assures that something of the “other” will be part of all of my thoughts and language.


In this regard, we should note that the Kabbalistic view is in Derrida’s terms decidedly non-logocentric. While logocentrism assumes an uninterrupted chain from a transcendental object or signified, through consciousness and experience, to reference and expression in speech and writing,[24] the Kabbalistic dialectic posits several breaks, distortions, emendations and reconstructions in this supposed epistemological chain.


In the Kabbalah, the access of consciousness to the pure being of presence is severely restricted by two negations, the Tzimtzum (concealment) and the Shevirah (rupture). As a result of the Tzimtzum, being is concealed as if through a number of veils which diminish and obscure the source and light of true being. As a result of the Shevirah, being or presence cannot be perceived or cognized except in a displaced, shattered, and chaotic form.  Indeed, as a result of the Breaking of the Vessels, reality and being cannot be perceived at all except through the interpretive, valuational and redemptive praxis of humankind, expressed through the Lurianic symbol of Tikkun.  What we think we see as being present to consciousness, including our own subjectivity, is, for Schneur Zalman and others, an illusion.  For the Kabbalists, full presence would be overwhelming, would overcome the distinctions between God, man, and world, and would actually result in the end of human consciousness.  For the Kabbalists, human subjectivity is founded upon the illusion of a split between subject and object, which amounts to the illusion of a distinction between God and man. “Truth” is not something that can be immediately observed, but rather must be extracted and reconstructed from an illusory, broken experience, as described in the dialectic of Tzimtzum, Shevirah and Tikkun.  Even the self, man’s personal consciousness, is obscured in a kellipah that must be unbound and freed (as per complexes in psychoanalysis).


The Kabbalists thus share with Derrida the notion that there is an illusory split between subject and object, word and thing, consciousness and world, but that these distinctions are nonetheless necessary for all language, thought and subjectivity. For the Kabbalists this doctrine follows from their view that all finitude is simply a concealment an contraction of the one absolute, Ein-sof.  For Derrida the doctrine follows from his view that the confirmation of linguistic words and sentences can only come from other linguistic words an sentences and never from a confrontation with the so-called object of language itself, which, on Derrida’s view, already a linguistic construction. We will have much to say about this topic in later chapters. Here I wish to propose an analogy to the phenomenon of dreams that will perhaps grant us some insight in these seemingly strange ideas. In a dream there is an obvious identity between (the dreamer’s) consciousness and its object (the dream—which after all is only in the dreamer’s “mind”).  There is also an identity between dream objects and words (in dreams objects often illustrate linguistic phrases, or suddenly become their words and vice versa—further, there is the impossibility of others distinguishing the actual dream from the dreamer’s linguistic report).  However, in order for a dream to be sustained, these identities must be temporarily “forgotten,” and a distinction posited between the dreamer and his dream world, and a further distinction between the dream and the dream report.  In short, the dream rests upon an illusory distinction between subject and object, consciousness and world, word and thing.  Once these distinctions are overcome the dreamer awakens and the dream can no longer be sustained. Similarly, in our waking life, consciousness, self, and language are all predicated upon the (illusory) distinctions between subject and object, consciousness and world, and word and thing.  Were one to actually penetrate to the “truth” behind these illusions, one could no longer speak, think, or perceive. In Kabbalistic terms, the Tzimtzum, which posits a fundamental rift between mind (Ein-sof) and world is the necessary background assumption of all that is experienced and said. For Derrida, a similar function is seved by the signifier/signified (word-thing) distinction.


Who or What Differs?

Derrida rhetorically asks “what differs? Who differs?  What is difference?” as if to tell us that the metaphysical spirit is so ingrained within us all that even he is tempted to ask these questions.  By attempting to provide an answer to such questions, Derrida tells us “we would immediately fall back into what we have just disengaged ourselves from.” If we answered this question we might be tempted to posit a being, a consciousness, or a God that “differs” but which is itself not “constituted” by difference.  This is an impossibly as being, consciousness, God, etc. are all preceded by the differential matrix that antecedes and constitutes language, thought, etc.  For Derrida, the subject, whether human or divine only appears within the system of differences that is language.  The subject is, as it were, already inscribed within language and cannot be called upon to function as language’s and difference’s “origin.”[25] So Derrida effectively blocks the notion that ‘difference’ is a constitutie or creative act of transcendental consciousness, absolute, mind, god or Infinite Being. In Kabbalistic terms it is not Ein-sof that performs an act of Tzimtzum, but Tzimtzum is itself prior to Ein-sof, or rather Ein-sof, as the “place” of the world is here equiprimordial with if not identical to Tzimtzum.


Differance is Prior to Consciousness

The question may arise, particularly in the mind’s of those who like Descartes tend to think of consciousness as an absolute, as to whether difference is somehow secondary to consciousness. For Derrida, consciousness, to the extent that it is identified as an absolute presence to oneself (as in Descartes “I think therefore I am”) is no more primordial than presence itself, which as we have already seen is constituted by that which it is not, i.e. by what is absent, past and future, in short by the very system of differences that allows what is present to be significant in any way.  Similarly ‘consciousness’ has no significance except insofar as it too is already inscribed in a linguistic/conceptual system.  This is not only the case because “consciousness” is itself a concept which is significant only by virtue of its place in the differential linguistic matrix, but also because the very experience or gesture to which “consciousness” refers or for which it is made to answer, i.e. presence to oneself, is itself already infused with absence, past, future, etc. and is therefore, in Derrida’s view, divided and alienated from itself.   Consciousness is thus hardly the “absolutely central form of Being” that we thought it to be, but is rather an “effect” of a system dominated by differance as opposed to presence.  Derrida, like Nietzsche and Freud before him, has unseated consciousness from the assured center of the philosophical universe.  For Nietzsche consciousness is a function of differential forces, for Freud, it is essentially the same.[26]  In each case consciousness not only differentiates and defers, but is a function of the capacity inherent in language to differentiate and defer (e.g. pleasure).


Speaking metaphysically here we might say that consciousness emerges out of something even more primordial than itself, i.e. difference, spacing.  Reading the Kabbalist’s ultimate through Derrida’s notion of differance, we might say that Ein-sof becomes the “place” as opposed to the cause or creator of the world.  Ein-sof, through the Tzimtzum allows being, language and thought to emerge.  We will have more to say on this topic when we consider Derrida’s critique of the ancient Greek notion of Khora.


The Trace, the Self, and Death

As we have seen, Derrida thus introduces the notion of the trace as a summary term for the constant interplay between presence and absence as well as between identity and difference.  Because the present moment has no significance, and in fact cannot even be experienced outside of its connection with a past and a future, the present is never totally present but is “present” only as a trace that is contaminated by an absence, i.e. the future and the past.   The trace cannot be mastered by the logic of non-contradiction.  The trace marks a place where opposites, identity and difference, presence and absence continually cross.


Man as a creature of time is defined as and by the trace.  But the trace paradoxically is the erasure of selfhood, because once man is understood to be defined by the trace, he is no longer fully present even to himself and his ego is involved in non-identity and absence.  These ideas link deconstruction to psychoanalysis, which also regards the self to be defined in large part by an “absence,” i.e. the unconscious (see sections on Freud and the Unconscious below).  In the process of attempting to represent itself, the self is other than itself, as well as broken and fragmented.  An absence is always present, an outside always inside; in Derrida’s terms this absence or death, through the trace, haunts both presence and the self.


Trace, Tzimtzum and “Absence”

Derrida’s ideas regarding the “trace” parallel important notions in the Kabbalah. Like Derrida, the Lurianists hold that the space and time, as well as all finite things, are constituted by an absence, constituted by the Tzimtzum. In the Lurianic Kabbalah, the very essence of finite being is that it is an “absence,” i.e. a concealment and contraction of Ein-sof.  The Tzimtzum creates, or better is, the absence at the heart of finite being, as it both provides a place, i.e. a “spacing” that permits the differentiation of finite things, and defines the very character of finite entities. This character is defined by the relative absence (concealment) of divine light in much  the same way that a projected movie image is defined by the relative absence or concealment of the light emanating from a film projector i.e. For the Kabbalists the Tzimtzum assures that all finite presence is constituted by an absence.   Derrida’s notion of the trace can be understood as an articulation of the nature of this absence in the heart of temporal presence. For the Kabbalists, the very nature of finite, temporal existence is that it is imbued both with an absence.  The Kabbalists equated this absence (Tzimtzum) with din, the trait of God that brings judgment and distinctions into a finite world.


For the Lurianists, time is both the vehicle and result of the Tzimtzum. Full presence is only possible for an atemporal God.  Understood in terms suggested by Derrida, because man is a creature of time, it is necessary that presence for the individual will always be constituted by an absence.  What I am at any given time is constituted by what I am not (the past and the future). My very identity is constituted by a past which is no longer and a future, which is not yet.  It is in this way that we can understand the Lurianic suggestion that Tzimtzum, Shevirah and Tikkun are all present in each thing and in every moment in time. 


It follows from the very essence of Tzimtzum as the origin of both finitude and limitation, that Tzimtzum conditions both death and ignorance.  Indeed, the very subsistence of finite things is a species of both death and ignorance.  Was finitude not estranged from and ignorant of the fullness of the living God, it could no longer function as an independent thing. It follows, then, that a certain “unconsciousness” is written into the very essence of finitude.



Derrida suggests that both Freud ]implicitly recognized differance and placed it at the center of his thinking, but failed to recognize the radical implications of this notion. For Freud differance, in the sense of deferring pleasure is at the core of the psychic economy.  Derrida, however, proposes that the deference of pleasure spoken of by Freud is ultimately an impossible presence, an “irreparable loss of presence,”[27] which Derrida associates with the death instinct and the “totally other” that disrupts every economy.  This deferring is an “expenditure without reserve” that opens itself up only to “death” and “non-meaning” Derrida uses his critique of presence to explode the myths of both Freud and Hegel, within whose theories pleasure or meaning is deferred to a later time when they fully will become present.  But since such presence is itself a deferment, and thus an impossible ideal, the economy that these theories are based on is a fiction.  Pleasure will never be achieved, and the absolute will never be realized.


The Unconscious

For Derrida the unconscious is part of the very structure of language and thought, rather than an empirical unknown that can potentially be revealed.  According to Derrida, it is not that a certain deferred presence remains hidden, but rather it is part of the very structure of differance that what has been thought of as deferred or displaced is implacably postponed.  A certain “otherness”, Derrida tells us, is completely exempt from the possibility of ever showing itself.  This “otherness” is spoken of metaphysically by Freud as the unconscious.  But this “unconscious” is not a hidden or potential self-presence, but is rather constantly deferring itself; it is an irreducible delay, not a thing that can be ultimately or eventually grasped.  For Derrida, the language of presence/absence is wholly inadequate, as is the view of the unconscious as an agency or archive.  The unconscious better understood as part of the very structure of differance, of language.


Differance and the Polar Oppositions in Philosophy

For Derrida, the polar oppositions upon which western philosophy is grounded are understood as emerging as each term expresses or participates in the differance of its opposite. For example, “The intelligible as differing - deferring the sensible, as the sensible different and deferred.” [28] A similar Kabbalistic idea is that such oppositions are reciprocal contractions and concealments (Tzimtzumim). For example, as will be described in Chapter X,  particular, sensible instants can be understood as contractions/concealments of ideas, while ideas are themselves contracted and concealed instances. 


Creation and the Lie

One binary opposition that has been deconstructed by postmodernist authors is the distinction between the truth and the lie.  Jabes, for example, in The Book of Questions writes: “Reb Jacob, who was my first teacher, believed in the virtue of the lie because, so he said, there is no writing without lie.  And writing is the way of God.”[29] 


The Kabbalist’s, in their conception of creation as Tzimtzum (concealment) provide their own deconstruction of the truth/lie distinction.  According to the Lurianists, Ein-sof creates a world through an act of concealment.  The vehicles of this concealment are the letters of the Hebrew tongue and language in general. The letters are embodied in the Torah, which becomes the blueprint of creation, which is itself the result of a linguistic process (“And God said…”) Scripture, which is the expression of God’s revelation and the template for creation, is also a concealment of divine truth, and in this expression/concealment, the origin of the lie. Creation, which, from one point of view is the manifestation, fulfillment and perfection of divine truth, from another perspective is alienation, and negation, illusion and deceit.  According to Schneur Zalman:  “Even though it appears to us that the worlds exist, this is a total lie.”[30]  We thus see, that for the Kabbalah, the lie, both as a concealment of the truth and a permanent possibility of linguistic deceit, is necessary if there is to be any creation or revelation whatsoever. The lie, for the Kabbalah, exists in coincidentia oppositorum with the truth.


Language Tzimtzum, Forgetfulness, Error

In the post-modern vision, forgetfulness of truth, misunderstanding and error, are not simply weaknesses to be overcome, but are rather essential to communication.[31] Language, and writing in particular, for Derrida and others, not only makes possible the transmission of meaning and truth, it also makes certain the existence of error, misunderstanding, mis-transmission and loss.  Language and symbolization is absolutely necessary for science, history and knowledge, but is also the occasion for their alienation and degradation.[32] Interestingly, a virtually identical view is found in the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria and his followers who held that language is the vehicle of the Tzimtzum, the primal act of contraction in which the infinite both reveals and conceals itself from the world.  Tzimtzum, as I have discussed in Symbols of the Kabbalah, results in the revelation and differentiation of finite knowledge and entities through a partial concealment or occultation of a universal one, the infinite, Ein-sof. 


This concealment/contraction, according to Schneur Zalman, occurs in and through the letters of language.  God both reveals and conceals Himself through the letters of writing and sounds of speech (the Written and “oral” Torah). God does this by contracting Himself into language, and thereby revealing Himself as one thing rather than any other.  However, this limiting aspect of language also assures that revelation and understanding can never be more than partial.  Indeed, according to Lurianists, it is a partial understanding that allows the finite world to exist at all.  The world, according to Luria, is predicated upon ignorance of the absolute One.


One aspect of language that underlies its potential for mis-transmission and misunderstanding is its linearity.  Language does not transmit ideas at once, but rather presents them in serial fashion, with the sense of earlier words and sentences being dependent upon later words, sentences and punctuation in the series.  What I am writing now will, of course, take on new significance when placed in the context of what follows, and as such will essentially be open to new, different (and mis-) understandings that occur as a result of the series’ development.  Nor does the meaning of what I write become fixed at the end of a sentence, paragraph, chapter or book. Even the final period at the end of this book does not create closure on what I am now saying, as this sentence, and the entire work, can and will be placed in the context of other things I and others have written, and so on ad infinitum. What I say here is, at least potentially, subject to re-contextualization by everything else I subsequently write or utter, or for that matter, by anything else that is written or uttered by others, whether in response to my words or simply on a theme that someone will utilize to help them understand my words. The possibility of reinterpretation and (mis)understanding is thus infinite, inevitable and essential. Until the moment when humankind arrives at the mythical last word, the final punctuation in the “great conversation” that comprises the developing spirit of humankind, what has been said will continue to be subject to re-contextualization and new understanding.


As I write these words I ‘contract’ my thought into language and at the same time conceal, obscure, and mis-transmit what I have to say. Isaac Luria expressed this paradox regarding the seriality of language when in apologizing for not putting his teachings into writing, he said that he had so many thoughts that the dam threatened to burst every time he tried to write them down. I cannot possibly place the entire context (emerging from my own life and thought) that leads to this sentence into this sentence.  By necessity, an enormity of thought and background is excluded. Such exclusion makes my communication both a revelation and concealment.


Spacing and Tzimtzum

Derrida draws our attention to the articulation of or ‘spacing’ between the elements in a linguistic system, which he sees as necessary for syntax and language in general.  In speech such spacing is found in the intervals between spoken words and phrases, in writing in the actual physical spaces between letters and words and in punctuation.  For Derrida such spacing is a constitutive nothing, and as such it is again very much akin to the Tzimtzum in the Kabbalah.  We can understand the Tzimtzum as God’s opening up of a metaphysical space that enables finite things and ideas to be differentiated.  It is perhaps natural to think of the Tzimtzum as the origin of physical space and time,[33] but, given the Kabbalistic equation between Tzimtzum and language, it is equally if not more helpful to think of it as the origin of the spacing that permits the articulation of words and ideas.


Khora and Ein-sof

The term “Khora” is used by Plato in the Timaeus to refer to the ‘place’ within which the demiurge is said to cut or engrave the images of the forms.  At times Plato refers to it as the receptacle, space, matrix or mother.   It is the progenitor of Aristole’s hyle and Descartes extensio.  At other times, however, Plato speaks of Khora in more “negative” terms, as neither logos nor myth, being nor non-being, sensible nor intelligible, present nor absent, active nor passive.  In this trope it has no meaning or identity; even the “receptacle” is something that appears within it.  Khora receives everything but becomes nothing.  For Derrida it is the impossible, unspeakable “other.”


Khora gives place, it let’s take place, without being generous or giving in any divine or human sense.  It is beyond the Good, God, and the one.  It is a barren characterless, no-thing.  We might say that it is the possibility of this or that, the potential that some thing might take place.   It is, I suppose, that which we could not imagine away even if we were capable of imagining away all time or space and even all being and nothingness; it is the potential deep within the recesses of whatever is or is not that something might or might not be, that there could or could not be anything whatsoever.  It is that there is any state of affairs whatsoever, and the place within which such states of affairs, including nothing are formed.  In contemplating Khora, we realize that the real miracle of creation is not that there is one state of affairs or another, e.g. the universe or its destruction, but rather that there is any state of affairs at all.


Khora is thus akin to Derrida’s “differance[34] and perhaps even more primitive then even differance.  The Kabbalists posited Ein-sof as similarly transcending being and nothingness, as Ein-sof is said to empty itself, contract itself to realize the tehiru (void) within which all the worlds arise. We can keep going in a circle here.  Is Khora more primal than value?  It seems that with value we already have a state of affairs, making Khora more fundamental, but in actuality we can generate arguments for the primacy of values, language, states of affairs or being.


Derrida speaks of Khora as a the “desert” and  “difference” that “gives place” to all, and which is “older” or more primordial than any religion.  This ‘desert,’ like the Kabbalist’s Ein-sof and Tzimtzum, provides the opening for and ‘gives place’ to that which it withdraws from.  Its main characteristic is “retreat, abstraction, and subtraction.”[35] It is the origin of the messianic, which is an “opening up to the future.” Khora is also that which is completely without being but which provides place for all singularities and is completely tolerant of and even identical to difference.  As Caputo puts it  it is “a placeless place of absolute spacing.”


Difference, Khora and the Orange Peel Projection

In order to comprehend the notion or gestures of Khora and differance we can make use of an analogy that we will have several occasions to turn to in this book; that of a two-dimensional representation of a three dimensional space.  A two-dimensional cartographic projection, i.e. map of the world, enables us to pare down our view of reality to that of a more limited and manageable world-picture. Picture in this instance a so-called “equal areas projection,” an “orange-peel” map of the world, which has been utilized as one of the many imperfect means of representing a three dimensional globe on a two-dimensional plane.  This particular model sacrifices the continuity of the great oceans in order to retain a measure of accuracy with respect to the sizes of land masses and the convergence of global lines of longitude at the poles.  The problem, of course, is that this form of representation entails that there are vast gaps in between the world’s segments (generally conveniently placed in the oceans), which have absolutely no interpretation on the map itself.  These gaps may give the viewer an eerie sense of an abyss of non-being encroaching upon the world from both the north and south poles.  They, in effect, provide a place for a map without in any way being part of the map itself.  These gaps are necessary for our representational system but do not have any significance within it.  Strictly speaking, like Plato’s ‘Khora’ and Derrida’s ‘difference’ they cannot be said to be being or non-being, a place or not a place; they are necessary for the map, but not part of the map.  This is not unique to the ‘orange-peel’ projection; the same observations that we have made about the gaps in our orange-peel projection can be made about the border or edge of the page in a Mercator or other projection.  One is here reminded of the biblical phrase “God is the place of the world.”



Providing Place

The borders, gaps, edges of our maps or other representational systems can thus be said to provide a place for our representations without themselves being a place within our map or representational system.  These borders, gaps, edges are, of course, a place in our world but are not in the world that is represented in a given map.  Now in order to make our analogy apply to khora, differance, and Ein-sof, we must move from a finite representation of a world, to the infinite reality of all possible universes.  Just as our borders, gaps, edges provide for the possible representation of finite states of affairs, without themselves being representations, khora, differance, Ein-sof, (or God as the place of the world) provide a ‘place’ (or for the possibility) for all states of affairs to be or not be without themselves being or indicating any state of affairs.  If we ask how it is that states of affairs are possible at all, we might answer:  Because Khora/Ein-sof provides place.


Kabbalistically this providing of place, void (or in Kabbalistic terms, the tehiru or clal) without which all worlds and possibilities are formed, is itself spoken of as an event in the life of Ein-sof, as if prior to the Tzimtzum there is a state of affairs, something like Ein-sof existing in perfect equanimous repose.  However, this way of speaking is misleading, as according to the Kabbalists, Ein-sof and Tzimtzum are metaphors or conditions that have no interpretation within our cosmos.  To return to our cartographic analogy, Ein-sof’s contraction to provide place is at a level akin to the (human) act of providing a place, i.e. a flat piece of paper, for the making of the map.  That act is incomprehensible within the context of the map itself, just as Ein-sof’s “providing of place” is incomprehensible from within the context of any models we can generate about the world.


Derrida implies that this “providing place” that he attributes to ‘khora’ and ‘differance’ is nothing generous, nothing akin to an act of chesed.  It simply “gives place” in the same sense that “it rains,” an occurrence without any attribute of thought or intentionality, as thought and intention are ideas that must first have a “place” within which they can be differentiated from other ideas.


Note on Difference, Khora and Cartography

We might say that the whole problem of differance, khora, and the “place” for the world only arises within discourse, i.e. once we have begun to conceptualize and speak.  It is a function of our representational efforts that the problems of khora and differance even arise. However, as we can neither philosophize nor even think without engaging in some form of representation, we cannot think without giving rise to khora and differance.  We would like to be able to think and even speak of a world independent of our efforts at representing it, but this is plainly impossible (in perhaps the strongest sense of impossibility). So for all intents and purposes, the account of the world involving differance, Khora, Tzimtzum, Ein-sof, etc. is about the world itself.  The problem of differance, khora, and Tzimtzum arises because of problems that are inherent in all forms of representation, all forms of discourse; any gesture towards representation raises the question of difference, contraction, concealment, loss of meaning etc.


John Caputo on Differance and God

John Caputo, in his important book, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida,[36] considers the question of whether differance can be assimilated by theology.  Caputo follows Derrida in rejecting the notion that at bottom differance is indeed the God of the negative theologians, and ultimately the creator God and God of Genesis.  Yet he considers the possibility that though differance may not be the God of the Bible it is divine nonetheless: “all the God one wants, or needs, or can imagine.”  In this light, Derrida’s differance becomes the open-endedness, the resistance to closure, the potential reinterpretability and hence creativity that is inscribed in all things, or better, within which all things are inscribed.  Differance is thus what keeps all things open to “novelty, innovation, renovation.”  It is “the possibility of the face of the earth being renewed.”[37]  This possibility, this ‘drive of life,’ Caputo tells us, is actually something worth being grateful for, and may indeed correspond to the one conception of God that even Nietzsche thought made some sense.  It is not a thinking being with intentions, but just the play of possibility.


Caputo speaks of “an asymptotic point of contact toward which religious faith and the thought of the trace tend to touch.”[38] The trace and differance not only begin to look numinous, but religious faith becomes inscribed in, and thus welcomes, the indeterminacy and relativity of meaning, which for some constitute atheism and/or the death of God.  The Kabbalist Azriel spoke of Ein-sof as the point where faith and unbelief meet. Caputo’s position can be understood as a contemporary explication of Azriel’s view.


Caputo here arrives at a position that is not quite in accord with the one with which he began.  From the start, Caputo is adamant that differance is not God, not something to worship, not something to thank; however, here he makes at least a quarter turn and speaks of differance as the innovative, experimenting, gift-giving spirit in all things.[39] 


Difference, as Caputo understands it, turns out to be something very similar to Ein-sof, which the Kabbalist’s describe as an ‘it’ not a He, present in all things, the nothingness (Ayin) which is both at the source of all things separate being (Tzimtzum), their deconstruction (Shevirah) and renewal (Tikkun).  The changing, creative character of Ein-sof, and the infinite reinterpretability that creates an openness to new possibilities and creative change is evident  in Chayyim Vital’s descriptions of the transformations of the worlds:


The worlds change each and every hour, and there is no hour which is similar to another... and in accordance with these changes are the aspects of the sayings of the book of the Zohar changing, and all are the words of the living God.[40]


With this you'll understand how the worlds change (with) the garments of Ein-sof, and, according to these changes, the statements in Sefer haZohar change.[41]


Interestingly, Caputo wants to push differance beyond the notion of a cosmic impersonal gift of open possibility to something that stands closer to the Jewish prophetic tradition.  Derrida is concerned with a particular kind of possibility effected by differance, and this is the possibility that opens up to those, who because of their ‘difference,’ are social, political, sexual and national ‘outsiders.’  It is almost as if the play of possibilities conditioned by differance has special favor for those who are ‘different:’ the outsider, the marginalized, and as Derrida almost seems to intimate, “the widowed and the orphaned, the crippled,” etc.  That differance should somehow favor the “different” does not simply arise from a semantic connection, but is something of a logical point: when possibilities are opened, the alienated and estranged are indeed afforded an opportunity.[42]


Comment on this article: Dialog on Kabbalah and Postmodernism

The Lurianic Kabbalah is treated in detail in Sanford Drob's Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

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[1] Gershom Scholem.  Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken, 1941),  p. 254.

[2] Derrida Differance (in Writing and Difference; University of Chicago Press, 1980), p.  11.

[3] Differance, p. 4.

[4] Differance, p. 5

[5] Differance, p. 6.

[6] Derrida, Speech and Phenomena 142.3

[7] harry Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida (University of Nebraska Press, 1980), p. 19.

[8] Anglo-American philosophers argue that Derrida’s use of the term “trace” belies a metaphysical way of saying that the significance of any term in speech and writing, (or event or experience) is dependent upon context; what has gone before and what comes after.  Derrida speaks as if there is some kind of entity (though he calls it a non-entity) called the ‘trace’ that embodies an ‘absence’ (past and future) in every presence.  Rorty would say that this is simply a new way of speaking that has no special claim over any other discourse.  Wittgensteinians might add that it is a way of speaking that misleads us into believing we have discovered a new entity or form, but which really has no result other than to bewitch our intelligence. My own view is that Derrida’s way of speaking indeed has a use, because it highlights the radical temporality of all experience and representation, and in a wider sense  the inescapable facts of tradition, of being born into a discourse, and living towards a future that conditions our subjectivity and experience.  Further, the notion of the trace provides a general framework in which to understand the unconscious. For example, the French psychoanalyst Lacan makes the point that we are born into an unconscious-language and that our “presence” in the world is already constituted by an unconscious past.  Once we speak in a new way, create a new term or ‘entity’ we can begin to see connections and create ideas we hadn’t previously considered. 

[9] Differance, p.  21.

[10] This is close to the Lurianic formulation of Tzimtzum as the unfolding (or in Sarug’s terms) folding of existence.

[11] Differance, p.  22

[12] p. 26

[13] Differance, p.  6.

[14] Differance, p.  7.

[15] Translated by PK, 1995- the German transcript of this interview is found in Florian Rötzer's book, Französische Philosophen im Gespräch, Munich 1986, pp. 67-87, here: 74 (Klaus Boer Verlag, ISBN 3-924963-21-5)

[16] Differance, p.  7.

[17] Differance, p.  8.

[18] The notion of deferring desire - giving rise to space and time echoes Freud’s early conceptualization of the ‘object’ as a creation of frustrated desire. 

[19] Caputo, p. 232.

[20] Caputo, p. 320.

[21] Caputo, p. 327.

[22] Staten, p. 62: (S & P, p.130)

[23] Differance, p. 9.

[24] Christina Howells, Deconstruction from Phenomenology to Ethics (Balackwell: 1998)  p. 49.

[25] Differance, p.  15.

[26] Differance, p.  18.

[27] Differance, p.  18.

[28] Differance, p.  17.

[29] Marc Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern Theology (University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 97.


[30]Rachel Elior,  Chabad:The Contemplative Ascent to God, in Jewish Spirituality: From the Sixteenth Century Revival to the Present, ed. by Arthur Green  (New York: Crossroads, 1987),  pp. 157-205.

p. 80.

[31] Howells, p. 15.

[32] Howells, p. 16.

[33] As I described in Chapter Three of Symbols of the Kabbalah.

[34] John Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. (Indiana University Press, 1997)., p.. 40.

[35] Caputo, p..155.

[36] John Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. (Indiana University Press, 1997).

[37] Caputo, p... 185.

[38] Caputo, p... 61.

[39] Caputo, p... 186. Caputo’s reference here is to Nietzsche’s Will to Power.  He also makes a comparison with Nagarjuna’s “play of the moon beams on ten thousand ocean waves.”

[40]Quoted by Idel in Kabbalah: New Perspectives  (New Haven: Yale, 1987) , p. 248.

[41] Chayyim Vital, Sefer Etz Chayyim, p. 29a.

[42] Derrida, however, seems to have faith that the opening of possibilities will result in increased justice, pluralism and democracy, i.e. “Good possibilities.”  The problem, however, is that when good possibilities are opened bad ones typically come in their wake, i.e. the chaotic, the impulsive and arbitrarily violent acts that plague an open society, the economic opportunism that follows on the heels of an open economy, etc.