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Is Tanya Too Demanding?

Is Tanya Too Demanding?



I'm beginning to study Tanya. I understand that this is a basic classic of Jewish thought for every Jew, and while I find the subject matter fascinating, it's hard to believe Tanya is talking to a regular person. I've come such a long way in keeping Shabbat and eating kosher, and now I see that so much of my day is still kelipah, or in the words of yesterday's Tanya "filthy garments."

Can you help put all of this in perspective? How does this all fit in the basic Judaism that I have studied?


It's beautiful to hear about your growth as a Jew. And what you're discovering now is that this work never ends. A Jew is a work in progress. We are never "there."

Now, about Tanya and basic Judaism: Halachah, the dos and don'ts of Judaism, is the guide for the Jew's everyday life. It tells us good from bad, mitzvah from misconduct. From the moment we arise until we go to sleep at night, it provides us the information we need to ensure that every activity we do is in line with Torah. A food, song, book, or trip that is unkosher is off limits.

Tanya raises the bar.

The question isn't only if it is unkosher. It is whether it is about us or about G‑d.

Tanya's definition of good is using something in a way that reflects its G‑dly nature. Everything at its core is G‑dliness. (See section two of Tanya for more on this.) The question is only whether we sense that and use it accordingly.

If that isn't apparent, there's something getting in the way. That something isn't necessarily bad. It may simply be a human/worldy/materialistic drive. But this layer obstructs our ability to see the object for what it truly is. Tanya calls that kelipah, meaning: a shell.

The pizza is delicious. Skiing is fun. The Grand Canyon is gorgeous.

Those are innocent statements. They just aren't holy.

But when those same activities are done in mindful manner, the kelipah is peeled away, and the act becomes yet another way to serve G‑d.

How? The pizza lunch translates into energy to do a mitzvah. The skiing trip is used as a reward for a class that finished studying a Torah portion. The Grand Canyon becomes a place to appreciate the majesty of creation.

I know what you're thinking. That sounds impossible? To find G‑d in every activity? What are we, angels? Why not just stick with the basics?

Here, there are two points to make:

  1. It is indeed only the tzadik (a perfectly righteous individual) that reaches a level so selfless that every moment of the day contains a G‑dly purpose.

    But that's ok. G‑d doesn't want a world of only tzadikim.

    He wants a world of regular people like me and you who at least realize that such a dimension exists and strive to get there. A world where we never stop learning, working, and growing. A life where we study this idea, reflect upon it, and albeit once a day, act on it. This struggle is so meaningful to G‑d, in a sense, more precious to Him than perfection of the of a tzadik.

    After all, Tanya was written for the average man, not the tzadik. A daily study of Tanya produces real results for the ordinary person. Change so subtle you hardly notice it happening to you, change so deep it leaves you with a new set of goals and aspirations . A materialistic pleasure that once made you content now leaves you empty, an act filled with a higher purpose that once seemed trivial now gives real and true satisfaction.

  2. It may not seem so now, but Tanya makes basic Jewish life, not more difficult, but far easier.

    I've used Photoshop for a number of years. I never bothered to learn the program, always managing to achieve my goal through trial and error. One day I was inspired to actually buy a tutorial. It took time and patience, (why do these books make things so complicated?) and I have to admit wanting to give it all up and going back to my system of pushing random buttons.

    But I persisted. Today, I'm still no expert, but the difference is night and day.

    Tanya does the very same thing to our Mitzvos.

    To get yourself to do something, there has to be a desire. It's hard to desire "do this, don't do that." There's a struggle, a constant battle with the typical human urges with which we are all born. But instead of relying on nothing more than kicks and punches, Tanya provides a hyper-powered weapon—one that's right at hand.

    You see, the true, inner desire of every Jew is to fill the world with G‑d's presence—by revealing G‑d's presence within each thing and each activity. Tanya provides a strategy for bringing that inner desire out into the open. In the language of Tanya, "to reveal the hidden love." Once out of its hiding place, this love provides such an intense energy that nothing can stand in its way. A life of Torah and mitzvahs becomes spontaneous and joyous. For more on this, see The Longer Shorter Way .

Keep learning. But learn with a teacher. We have a wide selection of classes online here at Find the teacher you relate to best. Have patience, and you too will get that hyperpowered energy in your hands. At that point, no challenge will be too great.

Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar is a Chabad rabbi in Cary, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Ask the Rabbi team.
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Discussion (15)
February 18, 2016
Thank you.
this is just such a wonderful explanation. I never saw this before and it really helped me as well because I also felt somewhat like the person who wrote in this question.
March 16, 2013
My emma was such a devoted student of Tanya that she gave me that name in the hope I would aspire to find G-dlyness in all aspects of life. We are always trying to develop more fully as jews...But I do feel pressure to live up to the teachings, and guilt when I fall short.
February 18, 2013
not everyone can take it
While Tanya may be invaluable for those who have questions, not everybody has those questions. After a lifetime of raising kids, some joys, but mostly worries and sufferings, I think most people just want to walk the dog, sip a coffee at Starbucks, watch an old movie and maybe ask the kids how this computer app works. They shouldn't feel guilty for that.
Brooklyn, NY
February 21, 2011
G-d is never over demanding.
If we can fly spaceships to outer orbit and master math, calculus, science, medicine & numerates then we must not become irrational when it comes to religious studies, even when challenged by opposing views from spiritually crippled (seemingly thwarted) agnostics and atheists, whom might co-concur that their disbelief makes it appear as overly demanding & challenging.
mark alcock
dbn, za
February 15, 2011
Nicely written! i admit i had the same question..Tanya sets huge expectations for us...this put things in a little bit more of a perspective though, at least for me :) thanks.
brooklyn, new york
January 27, 2011
How hyperpowered your words hype us.
Your inspiring words make Tanya; which is rather enigmatic; seem so easy and yet so compelling to do. It is sad that i have heard no others so eloquently explain her intimacy with intriguing deep reasons that stir up the Jew, to embark on a never ending journey; incumbent with Tanya to aim to be a holy graduate ...eventually fulfilled.
mark alcock
Dbn, SA
January 27, 2011
Love the Photoshop simile........myself, walked the same road - finally bit the bullet and bought a tutorial - almost as if overnight, all became clear.
This is what The Tanya does for us - almost like studying Torah with just a dimming candle, when someone turns on 5000W fluorescent lights of The Tanya. I, for one, could not live without it, nor its exposition through the teaching of Rabbi Ben Tzion.

Thank G-d for our teachers!
Hangzhou, China
January 27, 2011
You need a teacher
If a student tries to learn everything the first year of school they will become hopelessly lost, and burn out. One has to start with beginning topics such as reading the daily Torah portion, Psalms, Ethics of the Fathers. Later, once a foundation has been developed, then you can move on to Mussar, Tanya, Kedushat Levi, and Likutey Moharan.

You must also find a teacher, and study with him or her weekly. This will avoid misunderstanding, or going down the wrong path of false torah knowlege.

Above all else, find a good teacher! Only then will you be able to really understand and appreciate Tanya. You will never learn it all, but enjoy the journey!
Dr. Harry Hamburger
Miami, Florida
January 25, 2011
a message from the animal soul
this may sound crazy for some who dont understand but as some cannot live without Torah, i know i would be personally lost in this world without Tanya. we are all different but Tanya makes one realize that we are all the same but in different forms.
john smith
fort lauderdale, fl
January 24, 2011
Thank You
Thank you questioner and thank you Rabbi for addressing this question. I've had it too; for as long as I've been learning Tanya. I enjoyed this dicussion greatly and gained insight from it; that wit G-d's help I can put to good use.
Chani Slurzberg
Philadelphia, PA