The Psychology of Tzimtzum

By Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D.

Dr. Michael Mantell

Dr. Michael Mantell

TzimtzumSAN DIEGO — When Don Harrison recently gifted me a copy of Professor Mordechai Rotenberg’s The Psychology of Tzimtzum, it, like most gifts, came with a string.

“Michael, I thought you’d enjoy this book and I’m wondering if you’d be kind enough to write a review of it for our readers,” Don so nicely said.

“Of course, Don, it’d be my pleasure,” I instantly said. After all, the 139 page book looked like a quick read and I thought I’d easily read it and write a quick review. Not so fast, Michael.

You see, the author is a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, chair of the Rotenberg Institute for Jewish Psychology (there’s another kind??), and the author of thirteen books. This 2009 Israel Prize winner for his pioneering work in the field of Jewish psychology (there’s another kind??) is no light read.

In fact, Rotenberg says there is another kind of psychology, a “western psychology” that views relationships as a continuous struggle for dominance. Jewish psychology, grounded in the kabbalistic idea of tzitzum, focuses on giving not destroying, on self-effacement not self-assertion, and on collaboration not conflict.

Rotenberg’s work comes at an interesting time in western psychology. From self-help websites to innumerable Facebook posts, from leadership training to transformational coaching, from traditional medicine to mindshift health retreats, we see self-interest is being placed in the back seat to expressing gratitude, giving to and growing others. Perhaps there is, or at least will be, only “one psychology “after all – one in which self-absorption, self-importance and self-love contracts to allow for putting others first.

That’s what Rotenberg describes in the concept of tzimtzum.  It’s not an “I or thou,” but an “I and thou,” mindset. Both parties co-exist even with tensions between them, allowing for a dialogical approach. I contract to give you room to be you and you contract to give me space to be who I am.

Rotenberg credits Rabbi Isaac Luria with the observation that G-d constricted himself to make room for the creation of the universe, including you and I. How have we forgotten this lesson of creation and turned into people with attitudes such as, “I have more than you, mine is bigger than yours, I’m more important than you and I can judge you”? Tzimtzum, in Rotenberg’s social science description, advances co-existence, collaboration and dialogue – just the opposite of approach of so many who sit in positions of leadership in our communities. Tzimtzum comes to teach those who judge others, a simple message: “Get off your judgmental high horse, stop preaching and act more G-d like.”

Without diving too deeply, Rotenberg views tzimtzum as 1) replacing the Oedipal complex with parental-child tension with inter-generational harmony (The Binding of Isaac), 2) a “prospective” future oriented approach to coaching and therapy allowing for the possibility of change through “teshuva” by changing our thoughts about the past – yes people can and do change, 3) moving from an ego-centric view of life to an alter-centric view of relationships (“Kol Yisroel Averim”) in which we are mutually responsible rather than having a survival of the fittest view, and 4) an ongoing dialogue between the rational, material world, and the spiritual, mystical world.

We contract, just as Hashem did, to make room for the creation of the world with an “I and thou” mindset, to make room to be able to dynamically and mutually give to others while not diminishing one’s own existence. The result is a stronger relationship with others in which we take a “descent for the sake of ascent” attitude to help and positively influence each other. We can “re-compose and re-biograph” our past stories with numerous positive retroactive interpretations – just what today’s transformational coaching promotes – and grow from past errors.

While Rotenberg describes additional concepts of tzimtzum, including a dualism of body and mind, and Tikkun, too complex for a brief review, I’ll summarize his deeply spiritual and complexly psychological read more simply, as suggesting that our greatest success in life is found in helping others succeed.

As foreign as this is in many corners of our contemporary culture, where there are winners and losers, imagine how Hashem used the concept of tzimtzum to offer us a model where the success of others can be my/your success as well – when we help them achieve that growth along their way. The observation of Addison Walker comes to mind, “It is not true that nice guys finish last. Nice guys are winners before the game ever starts.” After all, we are apparently, according to this view of creation of the world, designed to live for something far greater than just ourselves.

By helping others change their mindsets and habits, overcoming limiting beliefs, and building strong self-esteem, we help others discover their life purpose and reach a far greater potential then they could have otherwise. This is the world according to tzimtzum. By contracting ourselves, not diminishing ourselves, we live side-by-side in a community-centric way with others in a far more genuine, authentic and G-d like manner. That’s Jewish psychology.

Mantell is an author, lecturer, and freelance writer.  He may be contacted via [email protected].  Comments intended for publication in the space below MUST be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the United States.)



Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2016 San Diego Jewish World

One Response to “The Psychology of Tzimtzum”


  1. […] Editor’s Note: For another review of this book, see […]

Please help us defray the costs of providing this free service with your non-tax-deductible contribution in any amount

Most recent 100 posts


Follow this blog

Email address