Sonia Rozenblum was born to her parents, Menachem Mendel and Sheindal Gourarie (Gurary or Gourary) on the 29th of Tammuz 5656 (July 1896) in the city of Kremenchug, Ukraine. Her father was one of three brothers, all successful businessman and devoted followers of the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn (henceforth the Rebbe Rashab). Members of the Gourarie family had been Chabad Chasidim of learning and stature since the movement was founded a century before by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Despite the privilege of wealth, the Gourarie’s in no way considered themselves exempt from the rigors of the Chabad path of serious intellectual commitment to the study of Torah, Chasidic texts and devotional prayer, and the renowned Chasid, Rabbi Yisroel Levin of Nevel, was hired to educate their children in the true Chasidic spirit. Apparently, Sonia was tutored alongside her younger brother, Shmaryahu, who would later become Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s son-in-law. As we shall see, the present letter indicates that by the time she was twenty, Sonia was intimately familiar with Chasidic texts in current circulation, and fully immersed in the intricate depths of Chabad thought.
In the collective memory of Chabad Chasidim Sonia is presented as a woman whose stature as a scholar and practitioner of Chasidic teachings far exceeded that of many dedicated Chasidim.
Although many of the details of her early life remain undocumented, it is clear that in the collective memory of Chabad Chasidim Sonia is presented as a woman whose stature as a scholar and practitioner of Chasidic teachings far exceeded that of many dedicated Chasidim. It is said that she would listen to the discourses of the Rebbe Rashab, and enter into audiences (yechidus) with him to discuss aspects of her personal service to G‑d (avodah). Leaving Europe before the outbreak of the Second World War, she lived with her family in Tel Aviv, Israel where she passed away in 1974. Rabbi Yitzchak (Itchke) Ganzberg (1927-2006) lived in Tel Aviv during that period and described her in his memoirs: “Ha-Rabanit Sonia Rozenblum… would pray at great length, especially on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. She really knew a phenomenal amount of Chasidut… often she would be found studying one of the deep series [of Chasidic discourses] authored by the Rebbe Rashab.” It is said too, that her husband, Rabbi Chaim Yosef Rozenblum (1897-1974), would sometimes wait several hours for Sonia to finish her prayers before reciting Kiddush and beginning the meal on Shabbat day.
In attempting to gain insight into the degree to which Chasidic teaching and thought was a part of her inner world, it is instructive to cite a letter, addressed by Sonia to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (henceforth the Rebbe Rayatz) circa 1927. Her family’s wealth having been lost or expropriated in the aftermath of the communist takeover of Russia a decade earlier, she was now forced to make her living by the labor of her own hands. With her husband away in Moscow, she is said to have used a machine to sew clothing, in order to provide for herself and her family in Leningrad. Apparently, it was under these conditions that she addressed the following lines to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak.
"How may it be that the soul which descended into the body, should not achieve its repair in this world?”
“It is already many many years that I do not study Chassidic teachings for various reasons, and I have become very far from the entirety of that path. The general impression that remains in my mind and heart dwindles far quicker than the passing of time should dictate, and I am sunken and swallowed in the futilities of the world and its preoccupations… Although it is true that I have been involved in much nonsense and inconsequentiality, have I not only desired the truth, [that is,] to serve Him with all my heart and soul? How may it be that the soul which descended into the body, should not achieve its repair in this world?”
Evidently the writer is a woman who places the devotional service of G‑d, cultivated through intense study and contemplation of Chabad Chasidic teachings, at the epicenter of her life. Rather than complaining of the indignities she has suffered, she expresses real concern for the deterioration of her spiritual situation. Certainly she had the practical skills, determination and enterprise to ensure that she and her children would survive in a difficult economic climate, but ultimately affairs of the soul remained uppermost in her mind.
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Unfortunately the present letter, published in Igrot Kodesh of the Rebbe Rayatz Vol. 1 from a manuscript copy, has reached us in an incomplete state. We do not know the exact date or circumstances under which it was written. At the top of the manuscript an inscription reads “copied from a letter of the Rebbe Rayatz whose soul is in eden, written in the years 5670-5 [1910-15] approximately, to Sonia, may she live, Roz’[enblum]”. As we shall see, it is clear from the content of the letter that at the time of writing the Rebbe Rashab, who passed away in March 1920, was still alive. It is also unlikely that such correspondence would have been possible following the upheavals brought on by the First World War. We may, therefore, judge this estimation to be accurate.
Dissatisfaction... might stem from... an “emotional” characteristic, which lays at the epicenter of the dissatisfied individual’s personality.
Based on its content, we can assume that it may well have been written in response to a letter similar to the one cited above, in which Sonia may have expressed regret at what she perceived to be an insufficient involvement in the study, assimilation and application of Chasidic teachings on her part. In the opening lines of this letter, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (1880-1950) seems to be either empathising with her or admonishing her for her own self-criticism and misplaced dissatisfaction. Such dissatisfaction, he argues, might stem from what he labels an “emotional” characteristic, which lays at the epicenter of the dissatisfied individual’s personality (the Hebrew term used to describe such an individual is “baal midot”). The remainder of the letter is devoted to a lengthy description of the nature of this deep-set inclination to dissatisfaction, and its association with a personality type that is essentially marked by an “emotional” element . The precise connotation of the word “emotional” as used in this context is actually very different from its usual meaning. Indeed, this point is itself the central issue that the Rayatz attempts to articulate.
It quickly becomes clear that the initially reproving tone is addressed to an individual whose intelectual capacity and depth is deeply respected by the writer. Indeed, the forthright manner, as well as the mixed usage of Hebrew and Yiddish (a more personal and intuitive mode of expression, often used in Chasidic discourses to articulate ideas of particular subtlety), reveals something of the deep nature of their pedagogical relationship, and the honesty and openness that existed between the two.
As previously indicated, the essentially “emotional” character described is not “emotional” in the usual sense of the word. As Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak hastens to forewarn, such an individual might have “great understanding and very very great breadth of mind, [the ability] to understand something with great depth and wonderful sensitivity, their analysis of a conception will be subtle, sometimes pure and true, [achieving] a very intimate and clear feeling for the subtlety of the idea. Nevertheless, the essential nature [of the individual] is emotional.”
What we refer to as emotion and intellect, are mere [borrowed] descriptions [applied to the experience] of intelligence and excitement of the heart…
In order to better articulate his point, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak asserts that, “what we refer to as emotion and intellect, are mere [borrowed] descriptions [applied to the experience] of intelligence and excitement of the heart…” In other words, we describe the cognitive experience as being “intellectual” and the impassioned experience as “emotional”. While these are, admittedly, correct applications of these terms, such applications “separate and restrict the nature of intellect and emotion” in a form that does not reflect their “essential nature” and “pure truth”. In their truest sense, the descriptions “intellectual” and “emotional” refer to conceptual abstractions, which may be seen as the definitive essence of the human experiences to which they are normally applied.
* * *
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak proceeds to illustrate how a conceptually limited form may nevertheless be a valid reflection of its abstracted source, incorporating certain properties of its source but in a more defined format, which renders it ultimately incomparable to its quintessential prototype. The illustration he provides itself points to the cognitive depths, which he evidently assumed the addressee to have attained: Having heard a concept articulated in a “sharp and short” format, the individual may be able to repeat the idea, but is not yet able to appreciate what it truly means.
The concept’s ultimate depth can only be assimilated “via very lengthy explanation (which stands in opposition to the aspect of synopsis, for it is understood that as each concept is developed with lengthy explanations and illustrations, one’s ability to swiftly encapsulate the idea diminishes).” Only later, “after the concept has dwelt in the understanding mind for a long while, as required in accord with the capacity and nature of the intellectual (the recipient), and the matter has become etched on their inquisitive heart – from all this will the abstract be compounded.”
The “abstract” referred to here is... a cognitive experience of profound depth, the manifestation of the concept in its essential purity, with lightening abstraction and tremendous potency…
The “abstract” referred to here is not simply the formulation of the concept in a “sharp and short” format, but rather a cognitive experience of profound depth, the manifestation of the concept “in its essential purity, with lightening abstraction and tremendous potency… [such that] the concept is lucid and one is animated by it… one is no longer involved in the specifics of the concept, but rather one is carried by the ultimate consequence (it’s essential aspect and abstraction) into an entirely new world, to the world of pleasure and animation… As the life of the soul animates man, that he lives without calculated knowledge of how or what that life is but only knows with utter clarity that he is alive, enthralled with the delight of the pleasantness and sweetness of the aspect of life… similarly, the intellectual is animated by the essential cognizance, without knowledge of specifics and aspects that can be delineated.”
The lucidity and animation are themselves not to be confused with actual cognizance of the essentiality of the concept. These are, rather, experiences that result from the assimilation of that essentiality. “Nevertheless, this consequential revelation is loftier than other revelations, in that it is a consequence [i.e. directly related to the assimilation of the essence]…” This being the case, “one is able to reckon, directly and by deduction, the nature of the essence of such a consequence… It is not the purity of the essence at all, that we should say that this is it. It is [rather] a description, the limited purity of the essence, one of the forms that result from the essence… which are revealed [from it]. Nevertheless both its limitation and its revelation are from the essence, and they have in them an essential potency.”
“All of this”, explains Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, may be transposed to the issue of emotion and intellect: The ultimate prototype of these faculties, “their pure essentiality”, cannot be judged by their limited form as generally experienced and described. “The manifest experiences of animated cognition or aroused passion of the heart, do not dictate their definition by limited description.” On the contrary, in the light of our earlier statement (here repeated) that even individuals described as “emotional” are “deep in understanding and broad in comprehension”, such a judgment is “twisted and very much mistaken”. By the same token, those described as “intellectual” are also “mighty of heart and tremendously excitable, so that each of the two types is not lacking any of the required moral faculties of intellect or emotion (by virtue of which one is called human). And nevertheless, they are two types, completely separated by a dividing partition between them.”
The labels “intellectual” and “emotional” do not describe the active, or manifest, character type of the individual, but a less discernible orientation, which is far deeper seated.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak defines “this deep partition” between the quintessential intellectual and emotional characteristics, as relating to the “chush”, a word that is usually translated as “sense”, and which here refers to a deeply subtle orientation. The labels “intellectual” and “emotional” do not describe the active, or manifest, character type of the individual, but a less discernible orientation, which is far deeper seated.
* * *
This brings us to the passage in which Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, finely points to the core of the issue, the essential distinction between an “intellectual” orientation and an “emotional” orientation. However, what is most striking about this passage is its obscurity, or better put; his reliance on Sonia’s familiarity with a specific text, and on her ability to deduce his intended meaning based thereon.
“One of the related descriptions, with which and through which, the nature of such orientations in general, and those of intellect and emotion specifically, may be understood to one who contemplates and pays correct attention to that which is said and noted (a kind of letter or statement that my father the holy Rebbe, may he live for many good years, distributed to the students of Tomchei Temimim, may they live, after Sukkot 1906).” Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak cites the opening words of that letter, and in parenthesis includes a cryptic synopsis, before concluding, “From there is the well of life for one who is fitting and meritorious to understand this matter…”
Nowhere in that letter is there any explicit mention of the difference between the abstract emotional and intellectual orientations, to which subject Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak immediately returns. We are left to study the cited text and ascertain its conceptual relevance by a process of deduction.
The cited text... was addressed to the students of the Yeshiva, Tomchei Temimim... in response to a threat to the authority of the Yeshiva’s faculty.
This “letter or statement” has been identified as the text printed in Sefer Hasichot Torat Shalom, a collection of transcripts of the Rebbe Rashab’s spoken word, pages 75-8. As has been noted, this text was addressed to the students of the Yeshiva, Tomchei Temimim. Specifically, it came in response to a threat to the authority of the Yeshiva’s faculty. The Rebbe had wished to address the students personally, on Simchat Torah, but was too weak to do so. Instead he transcribed his intended words, calling on the students to understand and implement the proper regard due to the faculty specifically, and elder Chasidim in general.
Without entering into all the complexities involved, the central point made is that there are two forms of cognitive orientation, the one being essential and the other being received (mashpia and mekabel). A student might ultimately attain deeper insight than his or her master, but the student cannot achieve anything without the master’s instruction and guidance. Ultimately, the student does not own the object of study, and always remains a recipient. The student might shine brighter, but the light comes from the master. In order for the student to receive and benefit from the master, he or she must put aside something of the self and make space for the other. One cannot overly assert one’s own faculties, but must instead attempt to assimilate the pedagogic transmission propagated by the master. The master on the other hand entirely owns the object of study. Indeed, it is so wholly integrated with his or her own self, that the master’s pedagogic output carries an essential brilliance, an undiluted authenticity, which can perhaps better be equated with the self-expression of an artist, than with a discipline studied by a scholar. Most individuals retain the cognitive orientation of a recipient, few – no matter how bright – achieve the orientation of a master.
An essential characteristic of the emotionally orientated is that “something is missing, and nothing can quench their thirst”.
It is here that Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak picks up, applying the label “emotional” to one possessed of the cognitive orientation of a recipient. Such individuals, he asserts, “have a second-nature to be constantly deficient, unsure of their opinions, inquiring and asking ‘why?’” An essential characteristic of the emotionally orientated is that “something is missing, and nothing can quench their thirst”. This is not because they have amassed less knowledge than the master, on the contrary, they might have gained more and understood it better. But nevertheless, they are “constantly thirsty and yearning… for in truth not for this that one has attained did one yearn… one’s yearning is not directed at a particular object, for if it was then when one achieves, one’s thirst will be quenched, and one will rejoice for it.” It is clear, therefore, that such an individual feels unfulfilled, “because the nature of longing is embedded deep within”.
As the letter has reached us, it’s final section concludes with a wonderful description of the joys experienced by the “intellectually” orientated intellectual (baal mochin) upon the attainment of knowledge, and lost to the “emotionally” orientated intellectual (baal midot) who is ever plagued by a frustratingly unquenchable thirst. As has been noted, the letter did not reach us in a complete state, and it reasonable to believe that Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak would have continued to provide some description of the obvious merits of having such a thirst for knowledge, and / or some kind of advice as to how one might overcome its negative side effects, and so achieve maximum success. As it is, we can only inform such speculations by turning to other source that discuss similar concepts.
Before such studies became formalized the intellectual efforts of such women where an organic product of the religious and social atmosphere in which they grew up, rather than part of a wider process of modernization.
Certainly this letter warrants further study, there is much to be discussed on the broader issues of educational authority and dynamics. What this letter might tell us about differences between male and female intellectual orientations, also bears consideration. Most importantly, the present letter and its content sheds light on an issue that has been largely overlooked. Here we have clear evidence that long before there was any institutionalized infrastructure for the education of women, there were individuals who engaged in such studies informally. Far from being barred from intellectual inquiry, the efforts of such women were encouraged and their accomplishments acknowledged. I would argue, however, that before such studies became formalized the intellectual efforts of such women where an organic product of the religious and social atmosphere in which they grew up, rather than part of a wider process of modernization. Although Sonia might have been unique even if she where a man, and also benefited from the close relationship that her family enjoyed with that of the Rebbe Rashab, it is unlikely that her case was completely anomalous. In my estimation, her individual experience points to a broader phenomenon.