The Word: Zimsum

So, I’m a confessed logophile. I love words. I think it’s one of the reasons I enjoyed learning languages, and probably why Hebrew was my favorite. (They have the best words!) In college and seminary, I learned a whole host of new words to help me discuss and understand things related to God, religion, faith, and theology. Here’s the thing, though: I hate it when words create barriers. Words are supposed to invite people into something, not keep them out of it. And what I’ve noticed is that theology words, God-related words, can often make people feel left out. At Journey, where Word Nerds abide, people are in the habit of just yelling out, “What does that mean?” when one of us uses an unfamiliar word without explaining it. But you may not have that kind of a place. Which is why I’m launching Wednesdays on my blog as “The Word.” Consider it one small way to share some word love and even out the theological playing field. Because regardless of whether you went to seminary or not, there are some fabulous theology words you should know.

So, without further delay, our inaugural Word is: zimsum.

Zimsum. This will come in handy just because everyone could use more z-words in their repertoire. And no, it’s not the same as dim sum.

Zimsum describes the act by which God contracted Godself to make space for creation to happen. Zimsum is God withdrawing, breathing in, so that creation might come forth in the newly created open space. Zimsum is a word that beautifully describes this lovely truth: God makes space for us. 

If you imagine a sphere that’s full of God, zimsum is the act by which God breathes in and contracts enough to make space in that sphere for there to be a place that we can call Not-God. In the beginning when the world was formless and void and the Spirit hovered, zimsum is the idea that God’s first act of creation was this willingness to create a space we can call N0t-God so that creation could come into being.

That’s so beautiful. It’s not unlike the process by which a woman makes space in her body for a womb to expand: a not-me space so that a new life can be born.

In fact, in all of our human relationships, we zimsum. We contract, make space, pull back, so that others can be invited in, so that others can have room in our lives. We do this because God did it for us first.

I think this is what service is. I think this might be a good chunk of what love is, too. We make space for the other. We limit not all of ourselves, but part of ourselves, for hospitality reasons.

Zimsum is about creation and making space, but it’s also about revelation, too. When Isaac Luria, who is the one who can be credited for bringing this fabulous word to prominence, was pondering the Shekinah or Presence of God, he wondered, how is God present in something as small as the Ark, or the Temple, or the human heart? Well, to do that, God must contract, must concentrate Godself somehow. God not only creates but reveals who God is by this willingness to make room and to meet us where we are. This is the mystery: God is both transcendent and immanent, always.

We see zimsum all throughout the story of God. God has this habit of willing self-limitation in order to reveal Godself to us. You need me to be a pillar of cloud by day and a fire by night? Ok. Want my Presence to travel around the desert with you in an Ark? Ok. Want to build a Temple where you can come and know that I’m there with you? Ok. Want me to come and live among you as human, even unto death, even unto resurrection? Ok.

God comes to us, even when that means that God chooses to be self-limiting. When Moses wanted to see God’s face, God said, “No, you can’t handle that, Moses. But I will pass by you, and you can see just my back.”

God makes room. God is always making room. And here’s the paradox of the mystery: God is glorified even in God’s willing contraction. God is glorified even because of God’s willingness to contract, to zimsum. Zeus wouldn’t give power up without a fight, wouldn’t let go of his prominence or his position of power for anything. But the God of Abraham and Sarah? God, the Father of Jesus? He comes, as Barth says, “into the far country” in order to draw close to us. God contracts to make room so that we can become who God intends for us to be. Because God loves us that much.

How cool is this word?!?! And honestly, I could go on and on talking about it. There’s so much more. But that’s enough for now. You’ve got Zimsum Basics down. You can use it in a sentence.

I hope this week you’ll give thanks for the amazing zimsum love of God. And maybe even live into that kind of love with those around you. One of the million times you’re breathing in and breathing out this week, take a moment to ponder this movement of God, and smile.

 

5 Comments

  1. When you google zimsum, you get a lot of dim sum.

    What language is it? Is it a word of your own creation?

  2. That is funny! No I didn’t make up the word. It became known through Jewish Kabbalah, specifically Isaac Luria. Moltmann also uses this term often in his work. (If you want, let me know and I’ll provide you book and page references.) It’s often used in relation/discussion of God’s kenosis or self-emptying. A number of theologians talk about it.

    Maybe try alternate spellings- zimzum, simsum? I use the spelling that Moltmann uses.

  3. Moltmann as a reference, that helped. It looks like zimzum might be a little more common. Hebrew is hard in our alphabet!

    Thanks, it’s nice to have a word for this concept. It’s the balance of sovereignty and free will.

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