Several thousand Talmudic scholars crowded into a large hall in Boro Park, Brooklyn recently to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of a small, unassuming book known as "the Tanya". Most of those attending the celebration were not followers of the Chabad Chassidic movement. Neither were the hundreds of academics who joined the four sessions on the Tanya presented this past December at the annual Association for Jewish Studies Conference in Boston.

The celebration of the Tanya in such disparate Jewish circles is testimony to the widespread impact it has had on the whole spectrum of Jewish scholarship.

"The 200th anniversary of the publication of the Tanya represents a landmark occasion for Chassidim, world Jewry and Western thought," says Richard Sugarman, professor of religion and Director of Integrated Humanities at the University of Vermont. "The Tanya provides a philosophical foundation in which the intellectual, spiritual, and psychological aspects of Jewish life are grounded," he says.

This modern classic is being celebrated this year by Chabad-Lubavitch centers around the world. In sixty countries on five continents, thousands of new Tanya classes are being offered in honor of its 200th anniversary. Lessons are also available over the phone, on the radio, through audio and video tapes and over the Internet. Indeed, since its publication two centuries ago, the Tanya has acquired a popularity normally reserved for Jewish texts many hundreds of years older.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad Chassidic movement, labored for twenty years to complete the Tanya before it was printed in 1796. The work was immediately embraced by the leadership core of the emerging Chassidic movement. Upon receiving the book the legendary Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev exclaimed, "Reb Schneur Zalman did the impossible—he put so great a G‑d in so tiny a book!"

An incisive compilation of Jewish mystical concepts, the Tanya presents a systematic approach, both to an individual's moral and spiritual development, and to a conceptual awareness of Divine immanence. It is no wonder that the work is part of the canon of Jewish texts studied in yeshivas today.

Little Book, Big Changes

For many Lithuanian yeshivas which were historically averse to the study of Chassidism, this is an interesting development. "How can a yeshiva teach only the 'revealed'"? asked Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, spiritual adviser of Yeshiva Torah V'Daas, one of the oldest and largest institutes of higher rabbinic study in America. "We need to teach the 'concealed' parts of Torah, and this is what the Tanya is all about. The Tanya explains the hidden parts of Torah," he said.

Revealing the Torah's mysteries rendered the Tanya a suspect work in the eyes of the mitnagdim (opponents to Chassidism) who turned in Rabbi Schneur Zalman to the Czarist authorities. In 1798, two years after the Tanya's publication, Rabbi Schneur Zalman underwent lengthy interrogations in a S. Petersburg prison regarding accusations that his book was rife with revolutionary sentiments. Charged with conspiracy against the Czar, he wrote a detailed discourse of refutation.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman's successful defense notwithstanding, the Tanya was still viewed several generations later as a manifesto of rebellion by the Communist government, who exhibited profound paranoia about the Tanya and persecuted its adherents relentlessly.

Many Chabad-Lubavitch chassidim who were arrested by the Soviet authorities for "counter-revolutionary" activities (e.g. running underground Hebrew schools, re-opening synagogues and building mikvahs) related a telling scene, which repeated itself with small variations for each of them. At some point during the interrogation, the secret police official, his face red with anger, would shove a small book into the prisoner's face, screaming, "I know what this is, this is your ammunition!"

Perhaps suspicion of the Tanya by a government vying for control of its people's mind, is not entirely without reason. "The Tanya is a powerful book, crafted with an extremely well-defined structure and does what it is designed to do - to motivate and inspire its readers to a Chassidic way of life," says Dr. Nehemia Polen of Hebrew College in Boston who organized the Association for Jewish Studies' sessions on Tanya. "The Tanya has had a strong impact even in circles where it was officially opposed."

To date, more than 4,000 editions of the Tanya have been printed in places ranging from Adelaide, Australia to Harari, Zimbabwe. After the Yom Kippur War the Tanya was printed in Alexandria and Cairo. Jews in Guangzhou, China and Havana, Cuba study their local editions of the work. The Tanya has also been translated into nine languages, including Russian, French, Spanish and Arabic.

"[The Tanya] is a key text to bringing the spirituality of pre-enlightenment traditional Judaism into the modern world," says Dr. Polen, explaining the heightened interest in the book. "And it does so not in the form of an enclave style of mysticism that hides it away, but with a sense of empowerment and purpose."

Mediating Between Heaven and Earth

In his preface to the English translation of the Tanya, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, writes that the author's Chassidic teaching "sees the Jew's central purpose as the unifying link between the Creator and Creation. The Jew is a creature of 'heaven' and 'earth'... whose purpose is to realize the transcendency and unity of his nature, and of the world in which he lives, within the absolute Unity of G‑d."

The Rebbe describes two ways - correlated - through which this purpose is realized: "...Man draws holiness from the Divinely-given Torah and commandments, to permeate therewith every phase of his daily life and his environment - his 'share' in the world...," and " draws upon all the resources at his disposal... as vehicles for his personal ascendancy and, with him, that of the surrounding world."

"The Tanya has many beautiful colors, like those of a perfect diamond," says Judaic scholar Rabbi Abraham Twersky M.D., associate clinical professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "Each reader can choose which facet he thinks is most valuable to him, and even that may change from day to day."

Twersky relates a story about several psychologists and psychiatrists who were studying the Tanya in a group. "They were able to understand portions of the Tanya the way no one who is not well versed in neurology and psychology can.

"I have taken criminals out of the Israeli prisons and helped them discover the beauty within themselves [through study of the Tanya]," he continues. "Meticulous study of the Tanya with special attention to every nuance in syntax, can reveal its abundant wisdom."

Today, tens of thousands learn a daily portion of the Tanya, finishing the cycle each year on the 19th of Kislev, date of the liberation of Rabbi Schneur Zalman from Czarist prison.

Yeshiva University President Dr. Norman Lamm, who teaches a course on the Tanya, also emphasizes the Tanya's "ability" to become available to different individuals. "The 'trick' is to interpret and translate the work into contemporary language," he explains.

"Then you discover what a subtle yet powerful work it is, rich in ideas and still relevant today."