One wintry evening in 5531, the gaon Rabbi Yosef Kalbo and several other of the leading Torah scholars from the city of Shklov were studying in the beis hamedrash of the Perushim. A young man carrying a small pack entered the study hall and went to the furnace to warm himself. It was obvious that he was weary and drained from his journey. After giving the guest some time to compose himself, one of Shklov’s more prominent scholars greeted the guest and engaged him in a Torah discussion. The guest’s unique manner of explanation impressed him and he called some of his colleagues to listen to the guest’s insights.

As the hours passed, the circle of scholars surrounding the guest widened. He began to expound on different Talmudic passages, to the absolute satisfaction of all his guests. Rav Yosef Kalbo had no words to praise the guest’s approach to study. “This is true scholarship,” he exclaimed. “It expands the mind, rather than constricts and narrows its focus, as do most approaches to pilpul.”

For the next two days, the guest was asked to lecture in various rabbinic forums throughout Shklov. All of the scholars of the city including the rav of the city, Rav Henoch Schick, were impressed with the guest’s vast knowledge and clarity of thinking.

For the entire time he was in Shklov, the guest did not reveal his identity. Later it became known that he was the Alter Rebbe.

This narrative reflects the approach taken by the Alter Rebbe in the controversy between the misnagdim and the chassidim. The Alter Rebbe did not fight against anyone. Though he stood in the midst of a very stormy conflict, he never launched an attack. His energies were not focused on negativity at all. Instead, he studied and he taught. Quietly, lovingly, with genuine care, he reached out to everyone. He respected the positive qualities, that others even his opponents possessed. He realized that it was not by diminishing who they were that he would win them to his side, but by showing them the positive virtues which Chassidus possessed. He was convinced that even his antagonists, when exposed to the approach he taught, would appreciate that he met their standards of Torah leadership. And he felt that there would be many who would understand how this new approach broadened their horizons and elevated their Divine service.

In the essay “Fathers of Chassidus,” whose translation is presented here, the Previous Rebbe emphasizes these themes, demonstrating how the Alter Rebbe countered the opposition which Chassidism met at its inception, and how he paved the way for the two approaches to be reconciled.

Norms and Beyond the Norm

One of the standard arguments which their contenders have presented to chassidim over the years is that study and observance are benchmarks that can easily be evaluated. You can see whether a person observes, how much he has studied, and whether he therefore qualifies to serve as a mentor. They would argue that the love and fear of G‑d, and the inspirational spiritual service which Chassidism emphasizes, by contrast, are intangible qualities, which you cannot quantify or evaluate. Therefore, if they are accepted as the criteria for leadership, a common person and for that matter, a scholar can be misled in his appreciation of who is a proper spiritual guide.

The Alter Rebbe’s response to this challenge was not to reject the norms which the others suggested. Instead, he showed excellence in those areas, and simultaneously, emphasized that this excellence comes as a result of a more comprehensive approach that is based on a different standard, a higher and more far-reaching appreciation of G‑d and our obligation to serve Him.

Turning Fire Within

A reader may be feel challenged by a conceptual difficulty when reading this essay. For the essay was written by the Previous Rebbe in response to questions from the Rebbe regarding the differences in approach between Chabad Chassidus and the approach to Chassidus followed in Vohlynia-Poland-Galicia, and the fact that on the surface, the intellectual thrust of Chabad appears to be a departure from the Baal Shem Tov’s approach. Nevertheless, instead of focusing primarily on that issue, the essay appears to shift the stress and elaborates on the conflict between the chassidim and the misnagdim and the Alter Rebbe’s approach to it.

It is true that both issues divided the Maggid’s students along almost the same lines. The leaders of Chassidus in Vohlynia-Poland-Galicia who placed the emphasis on the spiritual power of the tzaddik, were the same who called for harsh spiritual measures to be employed in the conflict with the misnagdim. And conversely, the majority of those who accepted the Alter Rebbe’s emphasis on individual Divine service, approved of his efforts to educate rather than combat the misnagdim.

This was not, however, a matter of a mere consensus. Instead, one position was the outgrowth of the other. The leaders of Chassidus in Vohlynia-Poland-Galicia saw the outward expression of spiritual vitality as the highest goal. And since their fire was directed outward, when conflict arose, they sought to meet it head on.

The Alter Rebbe, by contrast, placed the emphasis on an inward thrust, realizing the spiritual potential that each individual himself possesses. A person involved in such Divine service is not daunted by external challenge. Indeed, any such challenges are considered as prods to cause him to look deeper inside himself and find a more powerful truth, confident that the integrity of his approach will ultimately be recognized by his adversary, for1 “The unique dimension of truth is that accord is reflected from every side.”

“In Those Days, At this Time”

The Alter Rebbe’s conduct is not just a story of the path, but a legacy for our time. Our people is not a single homogenous entity, but a blend of many individuals each with his own nature and tendency. This diversity need not lead to difference. On the contrary, the most comprehensive conception of unity involves forging an organic whole from diverse entities. Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, there are times when inner differences will result in external division.

Here the Alter Rebbe’s example of love and truth is most relevant. There is no need to sacrifice an iota of one’s principles; on the contrary, if they are genuine, they cannot be sacrificed, for truth is unchanging. On the other hand, there is no place for conflict. Teach patiently; provide a sincere example of proper conduct. People will respond, for “The unique dimension of truth is that accord is reflected from every side.”

May this approach lead very speedily to the ultimate expression of love and truth, the coming of the Redemption, when “those who repose in the dust” will “arise and sing.”2 And we will again hear teachings from the Rebbe, the Previous Rebbe, the Alter Rebbe, and all the other tzaddikim. May this take place in the immediate future.

Sichos In English