The Mayan Yisroel storefront synagogue in the predominantly Orthodox neighborhood of Marine Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., looks like many local synagogues following evening prayers. Volumes of Talmud line the shelves; Ashkenazic prayer books are scattered on the tables, as groups of congregants engage in late-evening study.
At the back of the synagogue this New Year’s Eve, a group gathers around for a class in Likkutei Torah, discourses on the weekly Torah readings given by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, whose 200th anniversary of passing is this Sunday, Jan. 6.
For those gathered, Jewish learning is nothing new. They have been studying scholarly and complex Jewish texts since childhood. Yet only recently have they begun grappling with the teachings of Chassidism and Chabad philosophy. The attendees, their eyes glued to the Hebrew text, seem detached from their surroundings at the late hour, as Rabbi Yosef Vigler reads and explains the complex teachings.
“The text goes from one subject to the next,” says Shabsi Bergman, who has been learning with Vigler for the past few years. “It assumes that you already have an extensive background [in Chassidism].”
Bergman is fluent in many of the concepts, and intuitively picks up on new details. The current discourse focuses on the individual’s personal redemption, and ends with a discussion of Jewish prayer.
“If you cannot reveal your inner self, you feel spiritually restrained,” explains Vigler, reading from Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s text, “and your intellect is in a spiritual Egypt, an exile for your intellectual faculties.”
The text goes on to explain how, through prayer, one can emerge from this exile. When praying to G‑d, it explains, one does not need to cry for G‑d to have mercy on him or her, which could bring G‑d to focus on us and our faults. Instead, one should ask for mercy for the part of his soul that is intrinsically attuned to G‑d, but is in a spiritual exile. By doing that, by feeling the pain of the soul, one comes to reveal one’s essence and inspire a true love of G‑d.
“It is fascinating,” says Avrumie Green after the class. “It gives me a better idea of how to focus my prayers. It’s entirely different from what I learned during my childhood.”
A Guide for Life
Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, rabbi of the Emunas Yisroel synagogue in Borough Park, N.Y. speaks about Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi's contribution to Jewish scholarship. (Photo: JDN)
The next morning, Mayan Yisrael has been overflowing since 7 AM. A larger group now gathers around several tables for 40 minutes of study of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s Tanya, a small volume that guides a person in his service of G‑d. It is a guide, Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains, which encompasses a person’s entire life.
“The Tanya is a book that sets out the Chabad system,” says Lawrence Schiffman, vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University. He says the Tanya provides a “fusion of Jewish philosophy and mysticism as a logical and organized set of teachings, meant to be accessible to an average Jewish reader.”
Schiffman, who formerly was chair of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, says the Chabad system of thought as presented in the Tanya was never intended just for his disciples, or even for a wider Chassidic audience. “The intention of Rabbi Schneur Zalman was not to create a book which was to be a guide for one group of Jews. He found that this is a meaningful way of understanding Judaism, and therefore he thought that he should extend it to [everyone]."
Schiffman says he is not surprised that there continues to be a widespread study of Tanya. “It certainly is a book that many of those in the wider Jewish community would find tremendous meaning in, as it is meant to speak to the basic issues of Judaism.”
Efrat Mimoun is one such woman from the wider Jewish community who has found great value in the Tanya, and cracking open its pages daily is a must. “The volume teaches me how to see the world,” she says. It shows her “who we are, to understand what I could do, what to strive for, what to be and how to expose the better person in me.”
Before she started learning Tanya, the resident of Ashdod, Israel, says her outlook on life was based in despair. “When something happened to me, I always asked why G‑d was punishing me,” she says. “Everything was black and white. A lot of my daily life was surrounded by fear.”
“Now I am calmer,” she says. “I recognize G‑d in my daily life, and have the tools to deal with my anxiety and my fears,” she explains, grateful that as a result of studying the Tanya, she now has “a positive outlook on life.”
More than 200 years after its initial publication, the Tanya is available in translations in a dozen languages, with more than six dozen commentaries and a host of audio and video classes available in print and on electronic media, in addition to the thousands of weekly classes across the globe.
The complete online guide to the Tanya on Chabad.org, the leading provider of Jewish content on the Web, has become a staple in studying the text for tens of thousands. The site includes original and translated text and commentaries, as well as a host of audio and video classes.
The Tough Self-Help Book
Rabbi Yosef Vigler delivers a lecture at the Mayan Yisroel synagogue in Brooklyn. (Photo: Alex Gorokhov)
The Tanya “is the best way for us to have a grasp of our relationship with G‑d,” says Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, former clinical director of the department of psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa., and associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine.
He explains that the Tanya has everything one may need in a self-help book, but it is a "very difficult self-help book, not like all the other self-help books that are on the market, [which] are very superficial.”
Twerski, who has given classes in the Tanya for many years, says that he has advised a number of his patients to study it, and is currently working on his own commentary.
The Tanya, he notes, teaches that when confronted with any challenge, a person has only one of two options: “To cope with it, or to avoid it and escape from it.” The person makes his decision by considering two factors: “What is the magnitude of the challenge, and what are my capabilities? If he sees that his capabilities are adequate, he may undertake to cope with the challenge. If he feels that the challenge, relative to his capabilities, is too overwhelming, he will avoid it.”
Twerski says people may avoid the challenges of Judaism, of connecting to G‑d or of doing what is right because their perception of reality is erroneous, or their assessment of their capabilities is incorrect, or both.
He says that Rabbi Schneur Zalman, “presents the concept of reality as understood in Chassidic philosophy, and provides an analysis of the psychological composition of the human being.” One of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s key points, says Twerski, is that “man’s perception of his abilities to achieve is not intuitive.”
He says the Tanya teaches that there are forces operating within a person that tend to eclipse the perception of his or her higher abilities. The Tanya “seeks to remove these blinders, and to enable us to discover our personality strengths.”
Around large oval tables, their heads decked with large fur hats, or shtreimels, in the Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., sit Chassidic Jews of all types, listening attentively to Rabbi Moshe Wolfson. One of the most respected rabbis in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community, Wolfson leads Emunas Yisroel, one of the largest synagogues in Borough Park, and is the spiritual mentor at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, one of the leading religious Jewish academies in New York City.
He is speaking about how Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s teachings educate others not only to care about their own needs, but to look at other people’s needs and to self-sacrifice to help others. He speaks from his vast knowledge of the teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, and has given a class on the Tanya for more than three decades.
“Every person has a power struggle within himself,” says Rabbi Wolfson, introducing the Tanya’s description of the good inclination and the evil inclination. “Each of these judges is sitting on the bench, dictating what the person should do,” he says.
The Tanya, continues Rabbi Wolfson, explains how to reach the goal “that the good inclination, one’s higher, G‑dly self, should succeed.”
A Purposeful Life
Attendees listen to a class on Chabad Chassidism at the Mayan Yisroel synagogue. (Photo: Alex Gorokhov)
Back at Mayan Yisroel, as those around him grasp large cups of coffee, Cheski Baum explains why he is attracted to the daily class on the Tanya. “It is a science book for the soul,” he says. “When you begin learning Tanya, you appreciate the spiritual ‘body.’ It gives you a deeper understanding of what you are made of, and breaks down the ‘elements’ into levels that you could understand.”
Baum says that previously he felt boxed into his spiritual life: “I needed a way to channel my spiritual life to greater heights.” He says he feels that what he has learned about his spiritual side has given him so much more space to grow.
For Moshe Silver, the Tanya is about being more prepared for the challenges of daily life. “If you understand your entire [spiritual] system, then you can build a better defense against what is out there,” he says.
Chaim Herskovitz says studying the Tanya “helps you understand what your goal in life is: to become a better person, to have purpose—that life is not all about pleasure, pleasure and more pleasure.” He notes that coming to that conclusion was tough, and jokingly says that despite the Tanya’s “destroying life as I knew it,” he has attended the classes at Mayan Yisroel for the past five years.
Sol Kaplan agrees: “Before you learn Tanya, you don’t know what life is.”