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Contemplative Prayer in 20th Century Chabad

Contemplative Prayer in 20th Century Chabad

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The emphasis of early Chabad Chasidism on contemplative prayer is well known. Rabbi Shneur Zalman (d. 1812) presented several alternative approaches to contemplation in his work Likkutei Amarim, such as what he called the 'long way' and the 'short way'. These comprise literally longer and shorter varieties of contemplative technique. The second section of the same work, Sha'ar ha-Yihud veha-Emunah, functions as a manual providing material on which to base one's thoughts during a specific form of contemplation, focusing on the Divine nature of existence. This itself has several different variances, such as the "Upper Unity" in which one perceives that "all is G‑d," meaning that there is only G‑d, or the "Lower Unity," in which one perceives that there is a world, but it is an expression of G‑d: "G‑d is all."

The second generation of Chabad was particularly rich in its exploration of and argument about issues relating to contemplative prayer. There is discussion of approaching contemplation in a "general" or a "detailed" way. There are questions about the different goals to be achieved through contemplation: whether bitul, mystical self-abnegation, or heartfelt emotional ecstasy. Then there are different approaches to the question whether such ecstasy is spurious or genuine.

All this is relatively well known concerning the earlier period. But what about the 20th century? This was a time of increasing secularization and ferment in the Jewish community. Secular movements such as the Russian Jewish Enlightenment, Zionism and Bundism were growing. In this atmosphere, would Chabad mystical contemplation disappear, as part of a natural process of modernization? If it did not, why not?

Our thesis is that Chabad contemplation in prayer in fact underwent a revival around the year 1900. This took place in the context of a deliberate response to increasing secularization. At the same time, certain features of contemplation which come to the fore in study of this process throw light on the earlier form of Chabad contemplation. In particular this emphasizes the link between what is generally seen as the lonely, individual contemplative and the wider social structure of the Chasidic community.

Secularization has been defined as "a decline or dilution of other-worldliness." Precisely this is the issue, for while one might claim belief in the other-worldly, the transformation of consciousness to which contemplative prayer can lead requires not only belief but some kind of experience. One can distinguish between "visionary" and "emotional" experience: the difference between the prophetic mystic and the spiritual enthusiast. The enthusiast, one could say, achieves a sense of numinous radiance, while the person who achieves ruah ha-kodesh, a form of "prophecy" breaks through to a conscious visionary realm of souls and angels. However, even the lesser attainment--which is the substance of Chasidic endeavor in prayer, certainly as it applies to the Chasidic followers--requires some kind of emotional-cum-spiritual appreciation and perception. As mentioned earlier, the problem of possible lack of authenticity in such experience preoccupied the second generation of Chabad and differing approaches to the question were adopted by R. Dov Ber of Lubavitch and R. Aaron of Starosselye. However, both assumed that authentic spiritual experience in prayer was possible for at least some of their followers.

It seems that not all of their contemporaries agreed. The texts on which the work Vikuah Raba is based, first published in 1864, were probably composed by a follower of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, although they were later edited by Yakov Cadaner, a Chabad follower in the generation of R. Dov Ber and his successor, the "Tzemah Tzedek". An interesting passage in this work discusses questions relating to contemplative prayer and indicates that the author felt that by his generation authentic spirituality in prayer was largely a matter of the past, whether for the chasidim or the mitnagdim.

"The earlier generation are described as musicians who know how to play melodies for the king according to the rules of music, and also know how to prepare their instruments. Some of these, (the pre-Chasidic pietists and kabbalists) play their music early in the morning, because they have very good instruments 'made of coral,' while others (the chasidim) play later after spending a long time preparing their lesser quality instruments. Both groups are acceptable to the king. Their children however know neither the rules of music, nor how to prepare their instruments.

"They all produce sounds which are largely false. In imitation of their illustrious parents, some, the mitnagdim, continue to play early in the morning, and others, the chasidim, 'sleep late' and therefore play later in the day. (The argument concerns, of course, the question of praying later than the time stipulated by the halakhah). As far as the king is concerned, none of these melodies are worth hearing. Despite this sorry situation, there are some of the children who realize that their playing is false, They take this to heart, and spend time trying to learn the rules of music, even though they do not do this successfully, and try to prepare their instruments, even though they do not know how. The king sees this endeavor and accepts it."

The meaning of the story is clear: our generation follows the form of the earlier, genuinely spiritual figures. However, due to lack of content, meaning authentic spirituality, knowing neither the rules of music nor how to prepare one's instruments, the best one can achieve is a sense of humility at one's lack of ability to perform for the King, and a sincere attempt at least to try.

However, after the passage of close to a century there were further factors which made even the form of contemplation elusive. The simplest of these was economic. Well before the 20th century, as the opportunities for turning time into money increased, so there grew an economic pressure against contemplative prayer. Indeed, there was economic pressure against normative Torah study as well, as is evidenced by the growth of the Enlightenment movement. However, at this period Torah study as such could be seen as a route to status and power within Jewish society: it would assure the student of a good shidduch with the daughter of a wealthy man. This was not necessarily so in the case of contemplation and enthusiastic prayer. Even the traditionalists who fiercely opposed the advance of the Haskalah might well regard a Chasidic contemplative as a luftmensch, a dreamer who will get nowhere. The Yiddish word takhlis, "a goal," expresses the sense of a need for purpose in traditional East European society. It has strong economic overtones. In the eyes of the traditionalist community, did contemplative prayer have a takhlis?

Despite this Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn, fifth leader of the Lubavitch line of Chabad, around the year 1900 produced a number of tracts concerning contemplation and related topics. The writing and publication of these were part of a revival and broadening of the contemplative ideal. The immediate recipients and readers of these tracts were the students of the new yeshivah, called Tomchei Temimim, set up in Lubavitch in 1897 with another branch in Zembin. This yeshivah was distinguished by making the study of Chasidic mystical works an integral part of the curriculum, together with the conventional study of Talmud and Codifiers. Apart from the students in the yeshivah, R. Shalom Dovber's tracts on prayer also had an effect on the broader community of Lubavitch followers living in a wide area from Riga in the northwest to Rostov Don in the southeast.

Probably the most important of the tracts on contemplation written during this period is Kuntres ha-Tefilah (Tract on Prayer). This was distributed among the students of the yeshivah and members of the community in mimeographed form in 1900. Two decades later, in 1921, R. Yosef Yitzhak wrote an introduction to this work, probably in connection with its forthcoming publication. According to this introduction a central factor in the revival of Chabad contemplation had been the founding of the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah, with its exceptional focus on mystical Chasidic teachings.

A letter by R. Shalom Dovber from 1899 or 1900, appealing for funds for the yeshivah, provides information about the reasons why it was founded. R. Shalom Dovber complains about the increasing secularization of the students studying Torah at other, unnamed yeshivot. According to memoirs of younger contemporaries, such as R. Nahum Shemariah Sassonkin, this was a problem in the great mitnagdic yeshivot such as Telz and Volozhyn, despite the efforts of the yeshivah leadership to combat this trend. As a result, says R. Shalom Dovber, many of the student rabbis produced by the yeshivot "are beardless, mocking the words of the Sages and especially of the Zohar and kabbalistic works," and inclined to be permissive in matters of Jewish law, factors which, he warns, will have a corresponding effect on the wider Jewish community. R. Shalom Dovber's letter announces that some three years earlier the Lubavitch Yeshivah was founded. "Its students, who are increasing in number, are distinguished for their study of Torah and the service of G‑d in the heart, which is prayer, in love and in fear," terminology indicating not only punctilious traditionalism but also the ideals of Chabad contemplation. These students, says R. Shalom Dovber, will progress in their study and [spiritual] "service" and will be of benefit to society.

The Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah was therefore seen by its founder as combating the secularization of the time. A key aspect of this was the Chabad path of contemplative prayer which was taught in the yeshivah. However, in order to understand more clearly the nature of this path, let us return to R. Yosef Yitzhak's introduction to Kuntres Ha-Tefilah, (Tract on Prayer) in which he describes the revival of contemplation in the Chabad community.

He states that in addition to the founding of the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah, the new impetus came from the production of a different tract, ostensibly on a different topic: a lengthy discourse said by R. Shalom Dovber in the autumn of 1898, on Simhat Torah, and repeated a few weeks later. As was the custom, the text of this was later publicized in large numbers of mimeographed copies.

This discourse seems to focus primarily not on prayer, but on human relationships. Indeed, it may have related to a conflict which was taking place in the community at the time. It presents the theme of bitul, selflessness, as a necessary adjunct to association with other people: otherwise one falls into causeless hatred. By contrast, through bitul one can achieve social and human intimacy. The nature of this conflict is the age-old problem of harmony in human relationships. However, there is a hint that it is exacerbated by the tensions of a society in transition: the author mentions that "in recent generations" the conflicts particularly concern "rabbis, ritual slaughterers, matters concerning the synagogue." The result is that he does not feel sympathy for the pain of the other person nor join with him in his joy. Even worse, "one cannot bear the other person, one looks at him with a bad eye, till one finds even his goodness loathsome and despicable, one ridicules and despises his spiritual service and his observance of Jewish law." The antidote to this is friendship: intimate friendship in which people are able to help each other conquer such problems of the spirit. This process itself helps a person overcome their inner pride and separateness from others.

Complementing this apparently purely social theme, another aspect of this discourse concerns the exploration of the concept of bitul as a desideratum in the process of contemplation. The paradox of the quest for spiritual enthusiasm is that it can lead to a sense of selfishness and pride, or even envy. Through bitul one reaches intimations of the realm of the Tetragrammaton, characterized by unity and integration. In this context the discourse provides guidance for contemplative prayer, which might be in a mood of joy or abject humility. By careful self-scrutiny and thorough clearing out of every particle of causeless hatred "one will be able to walk securely on the path of contemplative prayer with the quality of bitul and purification of one's feelings. . ."

Let us try to follow Sassonkin's depiction of the farbrengen style of one of such guides whom he encountered in his years in Tomchei Temimim, namely R. Michoel Bliner of Nevil. Sassonkin describes a farbrengen as a form of spiritual purification, The "darkness of the soul" would be got rid of by means of revealing the radiance.

According to the mashpia R. Michoel, study of Chasidic teachings had to lead to "action"; by this he meant contemplation in prayer. For during prayer he can achieve wonderful things:

"To love G‑d, to fear Him, and to put right his personal qualities which prevent this and conceal it from him. Even if his study was as it should be, if he did not then pray with contemplation his soul would remain without tikun."

Sassonkin tells us that R. Michoel of Nevil's talks at the farbrengen would reveal the spiritual flaws in his students; but he did this with such gentleness and in such a sincere and inspiring way that they would listen in rapture. "Sometimes the hitva'adut would be at night and would go on till dawn. We did not notice that the night had passed; it was as if we were in a world which was higher than time." He describes the intense feeling of fraternity that enveloped the students, and the delight they would share singing the melody Kol dodi dofek in the fresh light of dawn. It is important to remember that at the same time, and possibly not very far away, other groups of young Jews were sitting up all night inspired by the rival ideals of Zionism, Socialism or the Society for the Promotion of Haskala in Russia. The Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah provided within orthodoxy a powerful ideal, transcending the bourgeois values of the householder in favor of the intensive enthusiasm of the pietist. A comparable phenomenon was the intense and unconventional Novardok school of the Musar movement.

For the Chabad Chasidic student around 1900 an integral part of the earlier stages of this ideological battle was the spiritual-cum-emotional experience of contemplative prayer or a farbrengen.

Both varieties of experience represent the endeavor to counter the secularizing force of modernity, in which the material perspective becomes the only 'real' dimension of life. A further aspect of the secularizing process was also the increasing supremacy of economic concerns over the bonds between human beings, leading towards "the treatment of 'brothers' as "others" and emphasizing the existential loneliness of the individual. A Russian Jewish contemporary of Sassonkin, the philosopher Leon Shestov, wrote at around the same time '. . . the last word of philosophy is loneliness.' In the view of Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak, this existential loneliness had always existed and was alleviated by the rise of chasidism and particularly Chabad. He wrote:

"The Rebbe (Rabbi Shneur Zalman) achieved that one is not lonely. Previously, the Rabbi--head of yeshivah and Sage--was lonely, and his students were lonely. The path of Chasidism which Rabbi [Shneur Zalman] founded has the great divine advantage that the Rebbe is not lonely and the chasidim are not lonely."

In researching this article I asked a number of contemporary Chabad chasidim what they think about contemplative prayer, a rid for explanations wily it is less common today than it was fifty years ago. An interesting answer given by a person who himself engages in contemplative prayer was: "because now a career comes before chavershaft [friendship]." An important aspect of the revival of contemplative prayer among the Chabad chasidim at the turn of the 20th century was the strengthening of human values. The farbrengen played a significant role in this. It is interesting to note that from the perspective of R. Yosef Yitzhak, contemplative prayer and the Chasidic farbrengen went together. He explains in a letter to his son-in-law and successor that around the year 1900 the farbrengen became more popular in the Chabad community. Previously the community had organized a farbrengen only twice a year. After the founding of the Yeshivah, however, since there was a farbrengen every Rosh Chodesh the community as a whole was influenced to increase the number of these gatherings. He writes that it was at this time that in the Chabad community the Chasidic farbrengen acquired its true form. Apart from the fact that the basic concept of a farbrengen was accepted, and it became fixed as the order of service of the Chasidic community, the farbrengen acquired a definite format, with a specific style . . . This structure has reached into the 20th century and in fact extends to our own time, despite the fact that today most Chabad chasidim do not directly engage in lengthy contemplative prayer.

Even in Lubavitch in 1910, the proportion of students who actually achieved the power to pray in a contemplative way is estimated by R. Nahum Shemariah Sassonkin at ten percent. The community responds to the spirituality of contemplation by listening and taking part in the farbrengen rather than by attempting to follow this path of prayer themselves.

This relates to the ideological battle in the West which preoccupied R. Yosef Yitzhak from the beginning of his leadership as Rebbe in 1920. From the early 1920s he corresponded vigorously with the Chabad followers who had emigrated to the United States, encouraging the study of Tanya, the Chasidic teachings of his father R. Shalom Dovber and particularly the latter's tracts relating to contemplative prayer. In 1940 R. Yosef Yitzhak escaped from Europe and took up residence in Brooklyn. Now there was a particular concentration of effort in the task to bring the spiritual perceptions of Chabad into the country where "time is money." In the 1940s the Kuntres Ha Tefilah and other works relating to contemplative prayer were published.

The Seventh Generation

In the second half of the 20th century there were major changes in the Chabad movement. The activism which had begun in the time of R. Yosef Yitzhak developed under the leadership of his successor, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994). This focused primarily on the most basic level of Judaism: setting up orthodox Jewish schools in countries around the world, and a variety of other activities aimed at transmitting Jewish observance, knowledge and values to adults. In the wake of the Six Day War in 1967 the Rebbe initiated the "Mitzvah Campaigns." These constituted a call to personal involvement of the entire Chasidic membership of Chabad, and especially the yeshivah students, in the attempt to spread the observance of practical Jewish laws such as the donning of tefillin, having mezuzot on one's doors, kashrut of food, the lighting of candles for Shabbat by women and girls and similar activities. One may well ask whether the attempts to achieve the ideal of contemplative prayer when the most enthusiastic chasidim were involved with setting up and running educational institutions or organizing study classes or video showings for the men and women who came to participate in the activities in the local Chabad House, continued in this atmosphere. In Kfar Chabad (formerly Safaria) in Israel during the 1960s there was an interesting confrontation between the old world of the Russian chasidim and the new generation of western newcomers to the Chabad movement, who had come to study there in the yeshivah. The yeshivah and the community around it had become a haven for Chabad refugees from Russia who came in 1949. Until today, this is one of the main centers where the ideal of contemplative prayer is practiced. The mashpia there, R. Shlomoh Haim Kesselman (d. 1971), was famous for his contemplative approach to prayer, which he endeavored to impart to his students. However, he was critical of the ability of those who came from western countries to aspire to the contemplative path. One individual from England who inquired about it was told that "the first step is to gain total control over thought, speech and action." When he achieves this, he was told, he should come back for further guidance. The effect of this was to deter the youth from asking again. Another English student was told by R. Shlomoh Haim when he asked about contemplation du bist nit shayakh far dem (meaning, in effect, "It is totally beyond you!").

A more accommodating approach is seen in a letter from the seventh Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, written in 1952 to the non-Chasidic head of the Yeshivah in Manchester, Rabbi Yehudah Zev Segal (c. 1911-1993). The Rebbe expressed his belief that the attempt to achieve spirituality in prayer, even if not matched by other aspects of a young person's life, Would help ensure that he would remain in the camp of traditionalist orthodoxy. There were some boys from Lubavitch families in the yeshivah, who were clearly trying to follow the contemplative style. In other respects, however, they were perhaps not untypical youth of the 1950s, at least in the eyes of their austere Rosh Yeshivah. The Rebbe writes as follows:

"As for what you write concerning the conduct of certain of the students . . . that you are not pleased about their lengthy prayer since this does not match their behavior in other matters. . . . Perhaps your claims are justified. However, it is clearly apparent to anyone considering the nature of the youth of this generation that for them in particular it is a time of crisis. One therefore has to be very careful not to weaken their power to reject the 'winds' which are blowing through the world. . . ." The 'winds' mean everything other than dedication to Torah, whether Zionism, secularism, or any other kind of path in life. The inner experience in contemplative prayer was a resource which would strengthen their affirmation of traditional values in a period of change.This discussion of contemplation in the 20th century perhaps affects our view of earlier Chabad contemplation in prayer. We tend to consider spiritual contemplation in terms of a lonely, existential mystic, although we grant that he had a certain role in society: he was not a hermit. Perhaps our picture of the past has to be modified. His social role as a contemplative was important for the community as a whole, enabling it to aspire to the spiritual ideals of chasidism. This in turn will perhaps be of use in the ongoing investigation of the relationship of spirituality, the other-worldly, to society composed of real people living in this world.

Dr. Tali Loewenthal is Lecturer in Jewish Spirituality at University College London, director of the Chabad Research Unit, author of Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School and a frequent contributor to the Chabad.org weekly Torah reading section.
This article was originally published in Wellsprings.
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