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On Studying Chassidus: Chapter Ten

On Studying Chassidus: Chapter Ten

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In regard to the two questions posed at the beginning of this letter: I am most reluctant to discuss at length what has already been often repeated in authentic narratives and published debates. One should denounce, in no uncertain terms, those who persist in this policy of casting doubts and instilling fears. Did I not know the questioner’s sincerity and piety I would employ a tone of admonition; I would censure him for advocating the fallacious contention that has historically been detrimental to the service of G‑d, and is so regretted in the True World now by erstwhile proponents of that policy. But I am aware of the questioner’s earnestness and cognizant of the effects of his environment. His views have their source among the second group of mitnagdim, and are shared erroneously by truly religious and learned mitnagdim until this day, so I feel obligated to reply, if briefly.

The first objection, that public discussion of the subtle topics of Chasidus may lead to the accusation that we are, G‑d forbid, irreverent of His honor, can be divided under four headings: 1) not to engage in the “esoteric,” 2) concern for public opinion, 3) fear of stimulating accusations, and 4) public discussion.

The proper procedure for mastering any intellectual subject is preparatory presentation of its general principles, and then, orderly exposition of their details.

The first commandment1 given at Sinai was Anochi, “I am. . . .” (Exodus 20:2), the commandment of emunah. The Rambam (Maimonides) writes,“The foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdoms (note: the acronym in these words, he hints at the Tetragrammaton. Faith must be in Him Who transcends nature, for His relationship with His people is super-natural.)2 is to know that there is a First Existence, the Cause of every existence. All existing in heaven and earth and between them, do not exist but for His true existence.”3

I have elsewhere4 written that one must apply reason and understanding to this faith; Maimonides says to know rather than to believe. This expression thus indicates that comprehen­sion of this subject is in fact possible, and that whoever understands as much as he can will have a strengthened faith in what is beyond his grasp. This is the true meaning of faith.

The commandment Anochi was given to all Israel equally. Every Jew is obligated to perform this positive commandment, each according to his intellectual abilities. It follows that one who can fulfill this duty but fails to do so, violates a positive commandment. One whose mind is incapable of understanding may perform the duty of believing through accepting tradition. But one with a strong and healthy intellect cannot discharge his obligation through passively accepting traditional belief; as a personal obligation, it (the knowledge Maimonides demands) cannot be delegated to another. Whoever neglects this duty comes within the meaning of the passage,5 “The commandments of the L-rd he denied.”

Those who rationalize and claim that we have no business with the “esoteric,” lean on a broken rod. Besides the intrinsic error of their contention (Why indeed have they no business with the “esoteric”? Who absolved them?),6 Chasidus is not “hidden” or supra-intellectual. Chasidus is a coherent systema­tized study, patterned on the process of developed ideas that, in reality, clarifies many of the “hidden” subjects of Kabbalah.

It has been explained at length that Chasidus does more than enlighten one in the knowledge of the Written and Oral Law.7 It does more than imbue one with enthusiasm in the performance of the duties of the heart which are as delineated in their own terms as are the practical precepts.8 In addition, Chasidus demonstrates a manner of conduct and social intercourse according to criteria of perfection inconceivable without its guidance and teachings.

A cursory familiarity with Chasidus is sufficient to know that many of its subjects are both comprehensible intellectually and efficacious in improving moral attributes. Individuals incapable of grasping the intellectual aspects of Chasidus can perceive the admonitions and moral instruction of the study. Chasidus has a profound influence on their religious and personal conduct. Scores of thousands of devout people in every generation are the produce of Chasidus, which animated their souls and those of their families.

The accomplishments of Chasidus are common knowledge. It has had great effect on scholars, broadening their native abilities and expanding the scope of their learning. Those of lesser talents have felt its effectiveness in improved understanding of Torah and inspiration to finer fulfillment of religious teachings. Even those simple folk unable to appreciate Torah wisdom were left with an indelible imprint in their love for Torah and Torah living, love of fellow Jews, and a deep-rooted strengthened faith.

Now then, one cannot be absolved even from the study of Kabbalah by pleading that “we have no business with the hidden,” for how can one argue against studying any aspect of Torah? Regarding Chasidus, this argument is especially irrelevant and specious. To its students, Chasidus reveals itself as an orderly definitive discipline bringing essential benefits in fulfillment of both practical and “heart” duties, enlightening its students with a comprehension of G‑d’s Unity. Chasidus gives its students a firm footing in ordering all their affairs. The four divisions of the first observation may be considered refuted.

Footnotes
1.
Cf. Derech Mitzvotecha, “Ha’amonat Elokut,” 1 and 2.
2.
Op. cit. “Achdut Hashem.”
3.
Mishne Torah, Yesodai HaTorah, 1:1.
4.
HaTamim I, p. 25: [After a lengthy definition of the requirements of the obligation “to know”, the Rebbe continues: This then is the duty of “You shall know” (Deut. 4:39)—to labor with the mind to understand G‑dliness to the best of one’s abilities. One must understand so well that it (the knowledge that G‑d is G‑d in the heavens above and the earth below, there is nothing else) becomes “close to his heart” (ibid.), that his heart is aroused with Love and Fear of G‑d expressed in fulfillment of practical duties and study of Torah. This duty, knowledge of Torah and G‑dliness through the interpretations of Chasidus, is so vital because it endows religious living with inner spirit.
All the preceding (reference is to the text, here untranslated) is in refutation of the two arguments that 1) mortals have no dealings with esoteric lore, and 2) not every mind can grasp these studies. Both arguments are intellectually frivolous; it is humiliating for a thinking person even to utter them. Any idea in any field is “esoteric” and “hidden” until one studies it, and without preparation the mind cannot entertain any idea.
Many non-students of Torah excuse themselves with the complaint that “their minds cannot assimilate Torah.” In their worldly affairs their minds are ingenious and creative, but the attraction of the worldly life is so enticing that they are not ashamed to deprecate themselves where Torah is concerned. Were a merchant to be told by his fellow that he is inept and lacking in business acumen, he would be insulted and furious at the other’s audacity. But when one remarks at his ignorance of Torah, instead of the fool being insulted he actually uses his ignorance as an excuse for not studying!
All this is equally true of the study of Chasidus. Certainly! Before one studies Chasidus it is mysterious, and without the preparatory work Chasidus demands, the mind cannot understand. . . .]
Cf. “Haamonat Elokut,” where Maimonides includes this in the commandment Anochi.
6.
Introduction by Rabbi Chaim Vital to Shaar HaHakdamot (reprinted in Supplements to Kuntres Etz HaChayim), ruling noted at the beginning of Zohar; Shomer Emunim, Debates 1, 29, ff.
7.
[“Written Law” refers to the Pentateuch and “Oral Law” describes the later works that were originally transmitted orally.]
8.
HaTamim, loc. cit.
Translated by Zalman I. Posner. Rabbi Posner (1927-2014) was a noted author and lecturer. He was rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel of Nashville, Tennessee, for 53 years and co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Nashville.
A Chassidic discourse by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch.
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