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On Studying Chassidus: Chapter Nineteen

On Studying Chassidus: Chapter Nineteen


Most of the subject matter of Chasidus is explained through logical parallels, drawn predominantly from the powers and faculties of the soul. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence who perseveres and studies assiduously is capable of understanding the subjects clearly, at least on the level of the illustration.

For example: the ten supernal sefirot parallel the ten powers of the soul. In fact, Tanya, chapter 3, describes the soul-powers as descendant from the ten sefirot. Concerning the powers of the soul, we can readily grasp the difference between the mind’s intellect and the heart’s emotions, and [more particularly], the variations among the components of the intellect and the various emotions. This knowledge is tangible, accessible. Through diligent intellectual exercise, one can continue to progress in comprehending the loftiest concepts.

As explained elsewhere1 at length, there are two types of comprehension: 1) elevation of the mind to the subject studied, and 2) descent of the subject to the mind. Each type may be subdivided into numerous categories composed of one or both main types. Essentially, the two general approaches are “abstraction” and “embodiment.” Elevation of mind is abstraction; descent of subject is embodiment.

However, the terms abstraction and embodiment are in general approximate descriptions. For each approach must include processes that are similar to those of the other.

Understanding is the result of either positive or negative reasoning. Superficially, these two processes appear to be antithetical (positive knowledge states in its terms what negative knowledge declares negatively; negative knowledge is the denial of knowing positively), but in actuality they are complementary. Positive reasoning proves the virtue of what we only know negatively; negative reasoning clarifies the positively understood. Each accentuates the virtue of the other.2 The initial step in mastery of a subject must be the knowledge of the positive, what can be known. This applies as well to abstraction and embodiment, first one examines the embodied, or lower plane of the subject.

The first step to learning, however, is [abstraction] the elevation of the mind in the ordinary sense of the word: simply—systematic devotion to intellectual activities. In time, this will lead to the achievement of the most profound, most delicate and abstract concepts.

Maamorim, op. cit., Oteh Or 5700; HaTamim I, p. 31.
[“In the union of idea and thinker there are three methods:
a. The idea, the higher, is to descend to the plane of the lower, the thinker. ‘Descent’ is the embodiment of the idea in illustrations and parallels so that the idea is perceptible to the thinker. This method may be compared to the one at the top of a mountain descending to be together with another at the base.
b. The thinker, who is the inferior elevates himself to the higher, the idea. ‘Elevation’ is the refinement of the mind, making it capable of receiving delicate ideas. This comes through practice in abstracting the core of an idea from its illustrations in order to perceive the profundity of the unencumbered idea. . . .
In the first method, one strives with the idea, clothing it in explanations. It is not a different idea; it is the same idea on a lower plane, but whose proper position is on the higher plane.
In the second method, the striving is primarily with the thinker, developing the ability to abstract, to immerse oneself in the ‘soul’ of the idea. For abstraction one must have a powerful mind and familiarity with the processes of thought. It is a precarious path, fraught with the possibility of error. Another difficulty is that ideas lead to conclusions, and conclusions are arrived at through the medium of embodiment, whereas in abstraction the conclusion is not at all evident.”]
[Subjects delimited comparably to the limitations of mortal intellect (dimensional in space and time) can be understood positively, i.e. one can know what the subject is.
A supra-dimensional subject, one that transcends the limitations of mortal mind, cannot be understood in terms of what it is, but negatively, in terms of what it is not.
The complementary function of the two processes is: Positive knowledge, as far as it can be exercised, indicates the loftiness of what lies beyond its scope and can be understood only negatively (e.g. G‑d is not dimensional). Negative understanding, in turn, gives clarity and definition to the positive knowledge already attained.]
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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