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Making Chasidism Accessible

Making Chasidism Accessible

How Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi Successfully Preserved and Perpetuated the Teachings of The Baal Shem Tov

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The founder of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), known as the ''Alter Rebbe.''
The founder of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), known as the "Alter Rebbe."

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad school of chasidism, was born on the 18th of Elul 5505 (September 1745) and passed away on the 24th of Teves 5573 (December 1812). Rabbi Shneur Zalman was a disciple of Rabbi DovBer of Mezritch, who was himself a disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, founder of the chasidic movement. As such, the Chabad school founded by Rabbi Shneur Zalman is universally seen as a stream within the wider chasidic movement, and yet recognizably distinct from the collective of other chasidic groups.

Today, this phenomenon is marked by Chabad’s frontal engagement with modernity, in contrast to the more cloistered attitude of other chasidic communities.1 Many have attributed this departure to innovations introduced by the seventh leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), who took the movement’s reins in 1951 and built it into the New York based international organization that it is today. In truth, however, the distinction between Chabad and ‘mainstream’ chasidism (often referred to as “Polish” chasidism) runs back to its earliest roots under the leadership of Rabbi Shneur Zalman.

In this article we will examine the nature of this distinction as discussed in the internal literature of the Chabad chasidic movement, and in a recent biography of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, by the renowned historian Professor Immanuel Etkes of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.2 A video discussing the broader intellectual contribution of Rabbi Shneur Zalman may be viewed here.

* * *

In what recognizable fashion are the chasidic ways and teachings of our great Rebbe comparable to the chasidic ways and teachings of our master the Baal Shem Tov?

On the 24th of Teves 5692 (January 1932) Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), the sixth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, wrote a letter3 to his son-in-law, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, addressing the following query, “In what recognizable fashion are the chasidic ways and teachings of our great Rebbe [i.e. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi] and the [subsequent] rebbes and leaders of Chabad comparable to the chasidic ways and teachings of our master the Baal Shem Tov? To the eye of the observer, are not the chasidic ways and teachings of the rebbes of Volhynia, Poland and Galicia closer to the chasidic ways and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov than those of Chabad, and especially regarding [the attitude to] miracles?”

In a subsequent letter, dated the 2nd of Shvat 5692,4 Rabbi Menachem Mendel reiterated his enduring perplexity regarding the Chabad attitude to the traditional chasidic miracle story, citing “the oft repeated saying: ‘in Chabad we do not value miracles.’” This attitude seems to be an explicit departure from an element usually held to be one of the hallmarks of chasidism. Likewise, the teachings of Rabbi Shneur Zalman and the rebbes who succeeded him as leaders of Chabad, appear to differ widely from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezritch and indeed all other chasidic leaders, both in form and in content.

Can the teachings espoused by the Chabad school be regarded as authentically representative of the chasidic teachings of the Baal Shem Tov? Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak concludes that the answer is yes. Nearly eight decades later, Prof. Immanuel Etkes arrives at the same conclusion.

* * *

A pupil must be able to study the teacher’s brief words and ultimately come to appreciate the voluminous depth initially intended.

The central argument set forth by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak begins with an interpretation of the Talmudic dictum, “A man should always communicate to his disciple in a concise way (derech katzarah).”5 Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak interprets this to mean that a pupil must be able to study the teacher’s brief words and ultimately come to appreciate the voluminous depth and broader ramifications initially intended. In the words of Maimonides, “the words of man should be few and their content voluminous.”6

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak compares the educational paradigm as a whole, and each individual pedagogic communication specifically, to a path (derech). There are two such paths: 1) “A master teaches a disciple; he shows him the way, and stands him upon the path, but the disciple must walk along it alone… 2) For a rebbe and a chasid it is not enough that the [student] is shown the way and stood on the path, rather the rebbe must walk together with him, guiding him along the specific elements of the path and its avenues...

Both sides of this pedagogic paradigm, argues Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, are harmonized and embodied in the relationship between the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, and those of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad. The Baal Shem Tov showed the way and set the Jewish people upon the chasidic path, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman provided practical guidance along every step of its meandering by-ways. “The Baal Shem Tov taught how one should serve G‑d, and our master, our Great Rebbe [i.e. Rabbi Shneur Zalman] taught how it is possible to serve G‑d.”

While Prof. Etkes’ study relies almost exclusively on the applied methodology of the critical scholar, his conclusions echo Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s with striking familiarity.

While forging a unique methodological path, and espousing an innovative spiritual system of great depth, Rabbi Shneur Zalman did not deviate an iota from the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings. Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s contribution was the practical guidance and the spiritual accessibility that he offered to the everyman, “lecturing him and rebuking him, inspiring him, and finding him healing and medication; comforting him and encouraging him, and bringing him to the truth via a program of repentance and service, each according to his station, [Rabbi Shneur Zalman] takes him [i.e. the everyman] from the dunghill and the dirt, rinses him and cleans him, and seats him in the kings hall.”

* * *

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s narrative is enthusiastic and richly Rabbinic in style, and is informed by his intimate knowledge of chasidic texts, the inner culture of the chasidic movement as a whole and Chabad specifically, and by his assiduous effort to accumulate and preserve the collective chasidic memory, corroborating it internally as well as with whatever documentary evidence he was able to obtain. While Prof. Etkes’ book length study is written in a very different style, and relies almost exclusively on first hand documentation and the applied methodology of the critical scholar, his conclusions echo Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s with striking familiarity.

Chasidic leaders had to find a method to translate their message of theosophic mysticism into terms appropriate for the spiritual development of the more general public.

Prof. Etkes describes how the chasidic leadership in the generation following the passing of Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, was beset by a new dilemma: By establishing localized centers in the areas where they had lived before travelling to Mezritch, they exposed a wider cross section of Jewish society, including “a broad strata of the less educated,” to the chasidic phenomenon. Chasidic leaders now had to find a method to translate their message of theosophic mysticism into terms appropriate for the spiritual development of the more general public.

Many promoted the idea of the chasidic Rebbe (or tzadik) as a bridge, whose personal spiritual achievements would serve to connect the common man to G‑d. By doing so they were entering into some form of compromise; the mystical ethos and experience that had been so central in the formative years of the chasidic movement, could no longer be emphasized to the same degree. Instead, faith in the rebbe’s stature and his ability to intercede and draw down physical blessing from on-high became the principal mode of chasidic engagement for the majority of their followers.

This, however, was not the path chosen by Rabbi Shneur Zalman. According to Prof. Etkes, Rabbi Shneur Zalman remained fully committed to “the central elements of leadership exemplified by the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch – mysticism and pedagogical instruction in how to serve G‑d.” The center that he established first in Liozneh and later in Liadi functioned primarily to inculcate new chasidim with the religious ideals central to the chasidic ethos.

The traditional image of a charismatic chasidic leader gifted with miraculous powers, was one that Rabbi Shneur Zalman actively sought to deemphasize.

Prof. Etkes makes a point of documenting Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s insistence that worldly affairs (milei de’alma) were not within his realm of influence, and his protestations that appeals for aid regarding such concerns caused him nothing but pain. He did reluctantly agree to offer advice in situations where several options where open and the individual knew not which to choose, and chasidim inevitably did attribute miraculous results to such transactions. However, the traditional image of a charismatic chasidic leader gifted with miraculous powers, was one that Rabbi Shneur Zalman actively sought to deemphasize. In this Rabbi Shneur Zalman followed in the footsteps of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebesk, who argued that the Baal Shem Tov alone was gifted with such abilities.

In attempting to define Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s role as a chasidic leader, Prof. Etkes asserts that he can be best described as an educator. Towards the end of 1796, Lekutei Amarim, subtitled Sefer Shel Beinonim (The Book for the Everyman) and better known as “the Tanya,” was published for the first time. While other scholars have mined the Tanya for Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s positions on a variety of theological issues, Prof. Etkes addresses the text from the prospective of its author’s own agenda, which was primarily a pedagogical one. In doing so he offers an illuminating survey of the central psychological framework put forth by Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founded upon kabbalistic concepts and centered on the doctrine of the two souls. Within that framework, Rabbi Shneur Zalman offered the tools to navigate the conflicting persuasions of intellect and emotion, and effectively confront such issues as happiness, depression, and man’s ultimate purpose. Prof. Etkes eloquently describes the complementary roles played by Torah study, cognitive contemplation of the greatness of G‑d, and the practical fulfillment of the divinely mandated commandments, along with other key elements of the path prescribed by Rabbi Shneur Zalman.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman offered the tools to navigate the conflicting persuasions of intellect and emotion, and effectively confront such issues as happiness, depression, and man’s ultimate purpose.

Noting the central role of prayer as “a framework for meditation on the greatness of G‑d,” Prof. Etkes addresses the nature and substance of such contemplative reflection. An exposition of the Kabbalistic complexities involved, including the doctrine of the tzimtzum, as set forth in Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s Shaar Ha-Yichud Ve’ha-Emunah, highlights another aspect of the difficulty faced by Rabbi Shneur Zalman: On the one hand he sought to provide an authentic representation of the axioms of chasidic thought, and at the same time he needed to ensure that the subtlety of such abstract concepts not be lost by virtue of the figurative terminology used to articulate them. Here too, Prof. Etkes points to the uniquely comprehensive, detailed and systematic format in which Rabbi Shneur Zalman addressed himself to the task at hand, providing his chasidim with a lucid exposition of profound depth, and the ability to successfully assimilate the chasidic ideal.

In the words of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, Rabbi Shneur Zalman “makes the chasidic way accessible, paving a broad path, passages of life-giving light, even for ‘the bent and the fallen.’7 With kindness and mercy he encourages anyone whose soul is sick, and with abundant love he extends a helping hand. And it is this that he demanded from our holy forbearers, the rebbes who succeeded him… with G‑d’s help, each one of them revealed to us wonders [both] in His Torah, which is the Divine wisdom and will, and [also] practical counsel regarding the [actual] service of G‑d…”

* * *

Rabbi Avraham argued that by articulating the principles of chasidism with such systemized lucidity, Rabbi Shneur Zalman risked extinguishing “the fire of faith” by feeding it “too much oil”.

As we have noted, the legitimacy of these definitively Chabad features within the wider chasidic community, was a matter of contention. Here too Prof. Etkes follows Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak in considering these distinctions to be central to the famous dispute between Shneur Zalman of Liadi and his older contemporary, Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk, a student of the Maggid and subsequently a leader of chasidim in Belorussia, who moved to the Holy Land in 1777. Following the publication of the Tanya in 1796, Rabbi Avraham addressed a letter to Rabbi Shneur Zalman, in which he argued that by articulating the principles of chasidism with such systemized lucidity, he risked extinguishing “the fire of faith” by feeding it “too much oil”. Before long many other chasidic leaders took one side or the other in a dispute that highlighted the unique and innovative path that Rabbi Shneur Zalman had paved, allowing the everyman access to the mystic depths of the chasidic ideal.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak illustrates the traditional Chabad response to such opposition anecdotally, recalling what he had heard of an episode that occurred when the tutor of his youth, Rabbi Shmuel Betzalel Sheftl – known by the acronym “RaShBaTz”, had visited the city of Kremenchug in the year 1867. At the time, Kremenchug was home to several famous chasidim, amongst them a significant Chabad contingent, the most renowned of whom all happened to carry the name Dov, or the Yiddish equivalent, Ber or Berel. Collectively, these Chabad chasidim, “might intellectuals and of valiant heart,” were known as “the Kremenchuger Berelach,” a typically chasidic designation that conveys a spirit of esteem and affection tempered by aversion to any sort of conceit or formality. Also living in Kremenchug at the time, equally “sharp of mind and valiant of heart” was a chasid of the Chernobyl chasidic dynasty known as Reb Pinchus.

“Chasidim of Chabad!” he demanded, “For what do you take such pride in the author of the Tanya and in his descendants, the tzadikim?"

When Rashbatz arrived in Kremenchug, the Kremenchuger Berelach received him with great honor, and Reb Pinchus too came to hear him deliver a chasidic discourse. Later, Reb Pinchus was unable to contain himself, “Chasidim of Chabad!” he demanded, “For what do you take such pride in the author of the Tanya [i.e. Rabbi Shneur Zalman] and in his descendants, the tzadikim?8 Amongst us [i.e. in Poland],” he argued, “our master the Baal Shem Tov dwelt, as did the Maggid, and all the disciples of the Maggid. Therefore our pedigree is greater than yours.”

In reply Rashbatz employed a classic rhetorical tactic. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak describes Rashbatz’s response as typical of as the Chabad tendency to disregard the rivalry that often existed between various chasidic groups, “not belittling that which is another’s, and treasuring that which is their own, and all in a spirit of inner pleasantness and intuitive sensitivity.” Using a parable to defuse the debate of its confrontational nature, Rashbatz asked, “Reb Pinchus, are you wearing a shirt?”

“Certainly.” answered Reb Pinchus.

“Of linen?” asked Rashbatz.

“Certainly, of linen.” answered Reb Pinchus.

“How do you make linen? Of course, Reb Pinchus you know: the flax is grown by the peasant, afterwards it is sent away, out of the country, where there are certain craftsmen who make the flax into good linen.

“We Chabad chasidim,” explained Rashbatz, “do not vie for pedigree – even of the most unrefined Jews, the Rebbe says that they are higher than high, and how much more so righteous ones upon whom the world is founded.9 For us, all the tzadikim – the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, and their disciples – ‘all are beloved, all are pure, and all are mighty,’10 [all are] empowered to make the voice of G‑d’s word heard, so that a Jew might gain an appreciation of G‑d.

"Do I need to tell you that the craftsmen - those who make the flax into linen – are to be found in Chabad…?”

“But you, if you vie for pedigree and say that in your country dwelt the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid and all the great tzadikim – you are saying then that in your country the flax grew. Do I need to tell you that the craftsmen – about whom the verse11 [Exodus 31:3] says ‘and I shall fill them etc. [with wisdom, understanding and knowledge (be-chachmah be-tevunah u ve-daas)12] to think thoughts etc.,’ in other words, those who make the flax into linen – are to be found in Chabad…?”

* * *

Internal Chabad sources and the findings of critical research agree that the defining feature of the Chabad stream of chasidism, is the way it takes the raw potency of the Baal Shem Tov and fashions it into a refined program of spiritual progression and accessibility. The system developed by Rabbi Shneur Zalman certainly incorporates many innovative features, but ultimately it was he who most successfully preserved and perpetuated the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov.

In many ways, the present discussion highlights a growing trend in scholarly literature. While academic scholars initially treated internal chasidic accounts with suspicion, assuming any such historiographical material to be overly biased and inaccurate, over the last several decades a wealth of primary documentary sources have been uncovered, which more often than not confirm the internal chasidic account.

The defining feature of the Chabad stream of chasidism, is the way it takes the raw potency of the Baal Shem Tov and fashions it into a refined program of spiritual progression and accessibility.

Author of the Tanya: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and the Origins of Habad Hasidism by Prof. Etkes, is certainly to be recommended as a masterful work of scholarship. Prof. Etkes takes advantage of the great wealth of first-hand documentary sources available, to construct a thoughtful, detailed and well-structured description of how Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi forged the unique brand of Chabad chasidic leadership. However, it is by no means a complete biography of Rabbi Shneur Zalman. The definitive biography of a man who was not only a chasidic leader, but also a renowned Talmudic scholar, liturgist, philosopher, halachic authority and kabbalist, remains to be written.

While two chapters are dedicated to Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s religious philosophy, Prof. Etkes essentially limits himself to an analysis of the guidance provided to the chasidim, rather than an intimate description of the theosophic mysticism that informed Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s worldview. As a chasid, I sometimes felt that Prof. Etkes’ style was too clinical. He would have done well to draw on the internal chasidic account to achieve a more intimate depiction of the social, intellectual and religious elements that combined to draw so many thousands to the chasidic message.

* * *

The social, religious, technological and political context in which Rabbi Shneur Zalman developed his methodological approach to the perpetuation of the chasidic ideal was far removed from the context we find ourselves in today. In the latter half of the 20th century it was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, who reframed Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s teachings and brought them into intelligent discourse with the new challenges of contemporary life.

Footnotes
2.

Baal Ha-Tanya: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and the Origins of Habad Hasidism (Zalman Shazar Institute, Israel 2011). Published in English as Immanuel Etkes; Jeffrey M. Green, trans., Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady: The Origins of Chabad Hasidism,(Brandeis University Press 2014).

3.

Published in Ha-Tamim, Eds., Rabbis Yechezkal Feigin, Yehudah Eber, Shmuel Zalmanov, (Kehot Publication Society: Kfar Chabad, second edition 1973), p. 150-159, viewable here. For a partial rendering into English by Shimon Neubort, see here

4.

Igrot Kodesh Ha-Rayatz Vol. 15, (Kehot Publiation Society: Brooklyn 2011) page 112.

5.

Tractate Chulin 63b.

6.

Mishnah Torah, Hilchot De’ot, 2:4

7.

A reference to Psalms 145:14

8.

Tzadikim, literally translated as “righteous ones,” is a term of reverence and deference, used in this context in reference to the Rebbes who led the various chasidic groups.

9.

A reference to Proverbs 10, 25.

10.

From the daily prayer liturgy.

12.

The name Chabad is an acrynom for the etymological roots of these words, chachmah, bina and daas.

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Anonymous September 10, 2012

Insight into the foundation Thank you Eli Rubin! Yes very illuminating article. Is it so that the original sources are in yiddish and therefore knowledge in the yiddish language is required to access these sources from or about Rebbe Zalman? I agree that scholars should make more use of the sources within the hassidic groups; Chabad, and the Rebbes spiritual explananations and the interconnectedness of ideas etc. Was Rebbe Zalman background decisive also a prodigy, illuy and the youngest disciple in the second generation, and from a jewish familyline who was much into Torah and Talmud studies: I guess he had a head start as a bright scholar. Was Rebbe Zalman the one to try to improve the image of the hassidim to the orthodox opposition in Vilna? Good I got the answer here that Chabad was not into the miracle healing focus. But jews do seek to the Rebbes later for advice, and to the Rebbes Ohels for blessings for health problems? Reply

RS Los Angeles, CA September 6, 2012

clear and beautiful thanks for this scholarly article Reply