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The Essence of Chassidism: A Message Beyond The Medium

The Essence of Chassidism: A Message Beyond The Medium

1965

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In a 1965 talk, later published as On the Essence of Chassidus, the Rebbe articulated a vision of Chassidism that illuminates the theological and methodological principle at the core of all his teachings.1

Though the Torah corpus comprises various literary genres and forms of interpretation, it cannot be reduced to the sum of these parts. Talmudic controversies, abstract Kabbalistic theosophy, Halachic legislation and Midrashic metaphors are all “utterly united with the revelation of the Infinite, blessed-be-He,” which is vested within the Torah. It is the role of Chassidism, the Rebbe said, to reveal how all these different genres of Torah equally express their unified source in G‑d’s infinite essence. By seamlessly alternating between different Torah genres and integrating them with one another, Chassidism allows Torah teachings to transcend the particular forms of Torah expression, so that each medium becomes utterly transparent to the ineffable message at its core.

The Rebbe demonstrated this with an analysis of four Torah interpretations of the Modeh Ani prayer - one Halachic, one allegorical, one hermeneutical, and one Kabbalistic (peshat, remez, drush and sod) - followed by the more essential explanation It is the role of Chassidism to reveal how all these different genres of Torah equally express their unified source in G‑d’s infinite essence.discovered by Chassidism. In light of the chassidic explanation all the previous explanations are shown to be endowed with new insight.

This talk not only articulates the Rebbe’s vision of Chassidism, but the underlying principle that informed all his teachings, extending from Torah to every aspect of life. In this context, the Rebbe recalled that his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, had once encountered several people debating Torah’s view of various theories of governance. “Being the ultimate truth and good,” Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak asserted, “Torah includes all the good aspects of all the theories.”

Chassidism is not a particular genre of Torah literature, nor does it belong to one. Chassidism explains Kabbalistic concepts, inspires the joyful practice of the commandments, offers ethical guidance and also social, psychological and legislative insight. But none of these functions alone, nor all of them together, characterize the essential nature of Chassidism. They are simply byproducts of its essential function. In uncovering the Divine essence of Torah, Chassidism illuminates all avenues of human experience.

One year earlier, the Rebbe had begun analyzing Rashi’s classic commentary to the Torah.2 Combining a meticulous dissection of the text with an analysis of Rashi’s methodology, the Rebbe highlighted inconsistencies undermining previous interpretations of Rashi, and offered new readings that endowed every word and letter with harmonious significance. In addition, the Rebbe offered a Chassidic explanation illuminating each new reading and forming the basis for a philosophical or ethical lesson of eternal relevance.

Ostensibly, the Rebbe was seeking to discover Rashi’s understanding of “the simple meaning of the verse.” But as was noted in the introduction to the first published collection of these talks, even the simple meaning has many layers.3 The Rebbe’s analysis of Rashi was not merely a local project intended to discover Rashi’s conscious intention, but part of the Rebbe’s distinctly Chassidic mission to reveal the unified essence of all aspects of Torah.

The Rebbe’s understanding of the essence of Chassidism not only informed his methodological approach to all branches of Torah study, but is also apparent in his teaching style. He rarely wrote organized treatises for public consumption, but spent thousands of hours delivering his famous sichot, free flowing talks, directly to the public. The Rebbe’s teachings were scholarly, but not elitist, rigorous but not rigid, multi-faceted but not fragmented.

On any given occasion the Rebbe might discuss the weekly Torah portion, American foreign policy, a difficult passage in Maimonides’ code of law, a philosophically perplexing Midrash, Jewish communal affairs and more. He did not approach these topics entirely within their own individual contexts, but transitioned seamlessly from one to another. Each was simply another aspect of Torah is the tool in the hand of man to reveal the Divine essence of all reality.Chassidism’s all-encompassing worldview.4

The Rebbe also delivered maamarim - formal Chassidic discourses regarded by chassidim as new disclosures of supernal truth. Before a maamar the chassidim would sing a wordless melody, solemnly readying themselves and rising to receive the new revelation. The maamarim often expressed his most theologically innovative ideas, and though the Rebbe was generally an animated speaker, the maamarim were delivered with a steady rapidity that was almost meditative in tone.

Following the Rebbe’s heart attack in 1977, Dr. Ira Weiss used a remote telemonitor to measure the Rebbe’s heart rate during his public addresses. During the more animated sichot the Rebbe’s heartbeat was dangerously erratic, but when he delivered the maamar the regular rhythm was restored.5

What essential message does Chassidism communicate? Ultimately, the message is not simply about Torah, but about G‑d, man and the world. Traditionally man has thought of G‑d either as being imminently present within the created realm or as entirely transcending it. But Chassidism teaches that both are simultaneously true: On the one hand, the essence is “utterly distinct from any specific aspect.”6 On the other hand, “it is the essence of all specific aspects.”7 G‑d entirely transcends created existence and is the imminent essence of every created thing. Torah is the tool in the hand of man to reveal the Divine essence of all reality.

Footnotes
1.
This talk was edited for publication by the Rebbe and was first published in Hebrew as, Kuntras Inyanah Shel Torat Ha-chassidut, an appendix to Sefer Ha-erachim Chabad, pages 755-773. It is viewable See here. It was subsequently translated into English and published as On the Essence of Chassidus.
2.
These weekly talks were dedicated to the memory of the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana, who passed away on the 6th of Tishrei, 1964. See sources cited below, note 3.
3.
Likkutei Sichot Vol. 5, page IV.
4.
In this vein see Sacks, Introduction to Torah Studies, viewable here.
5.
Weiss’ testimony is viewable here.
6.
Kuntras Inyanah Shel Torat Ha-chassidut, page 756.
7.
Ibid., page 770.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at Chabad.org since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
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Twenty-eight articles, each encapsulating a period of the Rebbe’s life, and highlighting key themes that distinguish his ideas.
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