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The Tanya: The “One-Size-Fits-All” Manual for Real Life

The Tanya: The “One-Size-Fits-All” Manual for Real Life

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The title page of the Tanya's first printed edition (1796)
The title page of the Tanya's first printed edition (1796)

We’ve all experienced the frustration of following an instruction manual to set up electronic equipment or assemble a dresser. At some point, well past when the manual insists we should be enjoying the stereo or armoire, we scream in frustration, “Why do they make it so complicated?!”

Imagine you had the author of that pamphlet with you. After you are done wringing his neck, he could easily explain to you how simple the directions are. And he would question why intelligent people are reduced to tears when faced with a simple task. The simple answer is that successfully describing something without the benefit of interaction with your audience, without nods of understanding or looks of bewilderment, is a near-impossible task.

Now imagine that you are not trying to teach clumsy parents how to assemble a toy—you are instead trying to instruct all of the Jewish people, for all time, in every area of their lives. Over 200 years ago, in a small town in Eastern Europe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad stream of chassidic thought, set out to do just that.

He boldly declares that one who examines this book closely will find the answer to all his spiritual queriesIn the introduction to the Tanya, his great work, he boldly declares that one who examines this book closely will find the answer to all his spiritual queries. A bold claim and daunting task, to be sure.

By this time, chassidic teachings had achieved renown and popular acceptance and respect. Yet its teachings had always been coupled with personal guidance; the sheer force of presence of a Rebbe was an integral, indispensable component of the teachings. And now Rabbi Schneur Zalman, also known as the “Alter Rebbe,” was making these delicate, highly personal ideas available to anyone and everyone, his life’s work and the richness of his experiences all crammed into a book available to the unlettered and inexperienced.

And he succeeded. A fact that can be attested to by the tens of thousands who study the Tanya to this very day, and find the answers to all their twenty-first-century issues in its timeless pages.

But how did he do it? How could the Alter Rebbe be so confident that everyone would be able to find individual guidance in this “one-size-fits-all” writing?

The full message of Tanya is beyond the scope of this article. I wish to focus on one phrase in Tanya which, I think, captures the substantive difference between the Alter Rebbe’s approach and that of all those who preceded and followed him, each seeking to capture the Torah’s instruction for life—and which perhaps explains how he managed this incredible feat.

In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe gets down to the tough question, the answer to which the book’s title page describes as its mission to provide: the meaning of the verse (Deut. 30:14), “Behold, this thing [all of the Torah and its commandments] is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”

The Tanya begins its analysis in classic Jewish academic form; the veracity of this verse is challenged, and potential responses are offered.

And then, in Chapter 17, the Alter Rebbe—in three words—sums up the crux of the problem. The Hebrew words are נגד החוש שלנו—my best attempt at translation is “our experience suggests otherwise.”

The Rebbe, a person utterly devoid of attraction to anything but holiness, recognizes that “our experience suggests otherwise” . . .I find that statement remarkably compassionate and real. The Alter Rebbe, a holy person utterly devoid of attraction to anything but holiness, recognizes that “our experience suggests otherwise”—that the student struggling with his relationship with G‑d, whether in eighteenth-century Russia or at his computer in materialist America, might not feel connected with G‑d. He feels lost despite the insistence of his parents, teachers, and rabbis that he should feel spiritually connected. Traditional Jewish teaching has hammered away at that student, quoting from Scripture, “proving” G‑d’s existence and immediacy. The Alter Rebbe, taking a revolutionary and very human track, acknowledges the very human experience of emptiness, that some just don’t sense G‑d in their lives.

What happens to the high-schooler who sits in class day after endless day watching her classmates “get it,” while she stares at the ceiling, befuddled, and even worse, disgusted with herself because she doesn’t see/feel/understand what her classmates do? It’s more than poor grades—it’s the forfeiture of self. Her self-image is “I must be broken,” because I can’t do what everyone else does.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the "Alter Rebbe" (1745-1812)
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the "Alter Rebbe" (1745-1812)

Into this frustrated life steps the Alter Rebbe and shows a side often absent in academics and preachy rabbis. He empathizes. He says, “I understand. All the lofty discussion of G‑dliness and Torah, all the evidence of Infinity and lectures of meaning is נגד החוש שלנו, contrary to our experience.” Our experience. Yes, even the Alter Rebbe himself senses the loneliness, feels the frustration. I am with you, he says. Together we will walk this path.

This is where the Alter Rebbe’s teachings stand out, and it may in fact be why he makes the bold claim that he is writing a book for everyone’s struggle: because he speaks from within—he is willing to replace the standard academic process, of validating a theory through quotes and platitudes, with genuine human experience. The Alter Rebbe gets “down and dirty” with real human fallibility, the profound human tragedy of feeling disconnected.

Into this sadness, the Alter Rebbe offers guidance—a light for those who thought that they were broken, that they were the problem. They had already exhausted all the “timeouts,” special tracks, and modified school programs. The experts concluded that they were just hopelessly lost.

The Alter Rebbe understands. He includes himself in the experience, and then he shows us the way he got out, and invites us to come along.

There are Tanya classes on this website and in many Chabad centers. Join in—you belong.

Rabbi Baruch Epstein is a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to Illinois, and serves as the rabbi of Congregation Bais Menachem. He and his wife Chaya are the proud parents of three daughters.
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Discussion (9)
December 2, 2010
re rh Dec 1 2010 and my post Dec. 3 2009
If rh made a reply which was not printed, this forum is the poorer for it, the loser. I encounter this ' sage ' in several forums and find myself always learning from her. Among other things she brings forth an attitude of love, instruction and from beyond the views of Judaism, for example here, Sufism. I am always appreciative when Chabad is not afraid to post ideas which may not conform to their own.
I don't know the depths of Tanya. It doesn't matter. I was more interested to learn about the Alter Rebbe's nature. He truly cared about his fellow man. He founded Chabad and Chabad ' founded ' me. Your article presents the Alter Rebbe as not preachy. That was music to my ears. Now you don't post rh. Was this an oversight ? What did/could she say that did not conform ? Would the Alter Rebbe be proud of you ?
Anonymous
wc
December 1, 2010
the subject of humility
I did get an answer and I responded but my response was not put on line.

I will say, for the record, that humility must be about us all, No one is exempt. I do deeply believe the Tanya must be deeply sensitive and have layers of meaning to be elucidated, studied, and revered. I do not argue for the sanctity of text. It all comes from The Source.

But we too, need to realize, we also, have lessons to learn, and that even the greatest of sages, in our tradition, that they too, make mistakes. We learn from our mistakes. I do. As to sage, it is a beautiful herb that emits deep and wonderful fragrance.

Who would ever want to be, perfect?

As to empathy, it activates EMOTION, and that emotion should be, compassion itself.

E for Energy with MOTION.

I do it with words. It's within the Kabbalist tradition and also Sufism, and deeply, from the SOURCE itself. There is a wheel of letters. This study is profound and leads directly to and from the Source itself.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
December 1, 2010
Empathize
Empathy means that you copy the motions of another person, what you should have written is sympathize. Empathy means this, if the Rabbi holding a service suddenly started jumping up and down because he had ants in his pants the whole concregation would empathize by jumping up and down as well. Sympathy means that you feel compassion or sorrow for someone. A sympathetic congregation would not just jump up and down, the men in a sympathetic congregation would help the escort the Rabbi to a private place and help the Rabbi to get rid of his ants. P.I.Y.D. (publish if you dare).
David Flinkstein
London, UK
November 23, 2010
humility
ms housman, i think it is wonderful you can ask this question about ego. i believe the rabbi will answer this better than i, but i think it comes down to a statement of fact. if it is true, is it arrogant to say? i wonder how Moshe felt when he was writing the Torah and came to the verse, "Moshe was the humblest of men". false humility is as inappropriate as arrogance in some cases. i hope rabbi epstein will answer your question personally. please do not let this stop you from reading further. this is also a good example of why it is so important to learn with a teacher. soon we will be able to learn with the Teacher of teachers and all questions will be made clear. continue to pray,"MOSHIACH NOW!"
chayim
portland, or
November 23, 2010
to
Indeed, humility is a central theme of Chasidus (and in all of Jewish life). As with all matters there is a distinctly Jewish understanding of humility. The concept is often confused with "timid inability." In his introduction to Tanya, the Alter Rebbe calls for avoidance of such misplaced humility: it leads one to withhold assistance, robbing those he could help. Jewish humility is ascribing one's skills to G-d.
Imagine if you had the cure to all disease; would it be "humble" to say you have something that "might slightly help some sick people"? Such a diminished representation might discourage those who could benefit from it. It would be preferable to declare that G-d has made you His messenger to bring healing. The Alter Rebbe is responding to real people and their real needs. He has answers (gleaned from scholars and scrolls) and we dare not hide them from those who need them most. Study Tanya. It will change your life.
Rabbi Epstein
Chicago, IL
November 23, 2010
all spiritual queries?
I got as far as, the answer to all spiritual queries. I find it hard to believe anyone can say this, because just saying it involves ego. I think humility is the key.

I am willing to admit that the Tanya may have profound spiritual answers for many people but I would be uneasy and sceptical of what appears to be a grandiose claim.
Did he really say this?

The offerings on last week's Chabad were all about humility. It seems there's a problem with this statement, above, and yes, it stopped me from going further in the article.

Am I wrong?
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
January 10, 2010
Great Thanks!!
Being so well articulated, this piece anchors down the underlying intention of the Alter Rebbe with clarity. Thank you Rabbi Epstein.
Mr. Jamie Diggs
,
December 3, 2009
Tanya
I opened Tanya. I am not ready for it's profoundness. Your titration does a great job of preparing me by stating The Alter Rebbe's empathy versus preachy. I'll remember this.
Thank you.
Anonymous
wc
December 2, 2009
Thank you
Once again Rabbi Epstein has focused in on my experience and at the moment my struggle with Tanya. Thank you
Chana
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