The Unity of Opposites

Religion

By Jay Michaelson

Published January 27, 2006, issue of January 27, 2006.

Learning From the Tanya: Volume Two in the Definitive Commentary On the Moral and Mystical Teachings Of a Classic Work of Kabbalah

By Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Jossey-Bass, 384 pages, $24.95.

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We Jews: Why Are We and What Should We Do?

By Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Jossey-Bass, 224 pages, $24.95.

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Why has the Chabad-Lubavitch sect become so successful? On the surface, the group would seem like a strange candidate for world prominence: One of the more intellectual strands of Hasidism, Chabad was once regarded as a sect of philosophers as compared with some of the other, more populist, Hasidic factions. Today, its arcane customs, strict observance of Jewish law and, of course, the notorious messianism of the last generation, all should deter newcomers. And yet, today Chabad is among the most successful Jewish outreach organizations in the world. What is going on?

If you ask a skeptic, Chabad’s success has everything to do with luck and marketing. Luck in that, unlike many other sects, Chabad survived the Holocaust more or less intact. They suffered grievous losses, of course, but other sects were completely wiped out; Chabad was not. And marketing: as chronicled in two recent books, Sue Fishkoff’s “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch” (Schocken, 2003) and M. Avrum Ehrlich’s “The Messiah of Brooklyn: Understanding the Lubavitch Past and Present” (Ktav Publishing House, 2005), Chabad is unique in its organized, hierarchical and sometimes ruthlessly efficient structure. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, whatever we may make of those who would deify him, was an expert marketer and a genius at organization. Take these two factors together, add in some messianic zeal, and you have the burgeoning Chabad-Lubavitch phenomenon, mitzvah tanks and all.

Other, more critical voices — including, behind closed doors, many Jewish communal leaders — simply regard Chabad as a cult. They see its “outreach” rabbis as missionaries, and its messianic, mystical ideology as dangerous. These are not new criticisms; in fact, they are the exact same accusations that were first leveled at the sect more than 200 years ago. But as the messianic elements within Chabad gain prominence, the opposition seems to be growing as well.

Surely, though, Chabad must be doing something right. There are a lot of well-oiled bureaucracies out there in the religious world, and plenty of cults, but they don’t all have Chabad’s success rate. An army of missionaries can spread the gospel, but if the message doesn’t click, people won’t listen. Just look at the millions of Jewish philanthropic dollars being spent on trying to convince younger generations not to intermarry — and how little the efforts are working. Maybe there really is something too Chabad’s brand of Judaism that is responsible for the devotion of its adherents, and the number of newcomers the sect attracts.

Naturally, that’s what a Chabad rabbi would tell you, and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is no exception. Of course, Steinsaltz is exceptional in just about every other way. A certifiable genius who is nearly finished with a massive translation and commentary on the Talmud — a life’s work for any scholar — Steinsaltz has also recently embarked on writing a multi-volume commentary on the primary book of Chabad Hasidism, the Tanya, the second installation of which was published last fall. In his spare time, Steinsaltz writes books like “We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do?” also recently published; not to mention “The Thirteen Petalled Rose” (Basic Books, 1980), one of the most widely read introductions to Kabbalah; four volumes of discourses on Hasidic thought, and guides to Jewish prayer, the Sabbath and the Passover Haggadah. Recently Steinsaltz has also been making a bid as a Jewish public figure, attending interfaith conferences, appearing on television and even trying to re-found the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court of law. One wonders if the man ever sleeps.

Steinsaltz may be an unusual human being, but in many ways he is not an unusual Chabadnik. Unlike many other sects of Hasidism, Chabad tries to speak to all Jews, not just its own, and embraces technology, business and much of contemporary society in general. (Indeed, this outward-turning face of Chabad has sometimes had surprising consequences: Within the immediate families of more than one Lubavitcher Rebbe, there have been those who left religious life, and even converted to Christianity.) Chabad.org, the sect’s Web site, was one of the first in cyberspace, and is today ranked among the top 10 visited Jewish sites on the Internet. There are Chabad professors at universities, scientists at biotech firms and businessmen running dotcoms. Grounded in a theology that sees God everywhere, Lubavitch Hasidim seem to be everywhere.

“Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral & Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah” (Jossey-Bass, 2003) and “Learning From the Tanya” are, on the surface, straightforward books: they are word-by-word commentaries on the Tanya, a text first published in 1797 by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. The founder of Chabad, the rabbi was an outstanding member of the third generation of Hasidism. The Tanya is a challenging book: it is dense, and steeped in Kabbalistic psychology and philosophy. Yet, today one finds copies of it (and “Opening the Tanya”) in the homes of many liberal Jews, and on the bookshelves of major chain stores — and Steinsaltz hasn’t even reached the best part: the section titled “The Gate of Unity and Faith,” which contains some of the most beautiful systematic theology of the Jewish tradition.

What “Learning From the Tanya” and its predecessor chiefly address is Chabad’s distinctive psychology, which sees most people as, literally, In-Betweeners, neither good nor evil but somewhere in the middle. The duality of the self, the Tanya explains, reflects the dual structure of existence — which from one perspective is nothing but God, but from another perspective is the normal world we all inhabit, with cars and trees and people. This is the essence of Hasidism, as explained by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe in a fascinating small volume called “On the Essence of Chassidus” (Kehot, 1986): the paradox that God is everywhere and yet it can seem like God is nowhere. Theologically, an infinite God is as present in the moment of disbelief as in the moment of faith, as much in the laundry as in the synagogue. But practically, the early Hasidic masters explain, it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes we’re in touch with what matters, sometimes we’re not; sometimes we’re acting generously, sometimes we’re not. This is the nature of life, and the nature of the Beinoni, the in-betweener. The question is how to live in the vacillation.

Though more than 200 years old, this psychology can be very appealing to Jews who find themselves variously attracted and repelled by Jewish religious practice. Few Jews are either wholly “religious” or wholly “secular” — most of us are, indeed, somewhere in between. The Tanya says that this is a basic condition of humanity.

Well — almost. Notoriously, the Tanya reserves its psychology for Jews, who, the book says, are possessed of both divine and animal souls. The other 99.7% of the world either lacks a divine soul, or doesn’t know how to access it. In both “Learning From the Tanya” and “We Jews,” Steinsaltz maintains this acute ethnocentrism but tries to explain it by saying that religiosity, faithfulness and an impulse to monotheism are “almost biological” traits of the Jewish people. In the Tanya, this supposed trait is expressed as a distinct soul that is turned always toward the Divine. In “We Jews,” Steinsaltz says that a Jew is just “geared to think this way.”

Perhaps this view — found in most of the world’s religious communities — might be dismissed as merely the product of persecution. After all, the Tanya is a product of its times: Rabbi Schneur Zalman spent time in prison, and suffered at the hands of non-Jewish oppressors; one might forgive his seeing the non-Jewish world as being the realm of evil. However, “Learning From the Tanya” and, even more so, “We Jews,” is a product of our times, and the idea that Jews are more “naturally religious” than everyone else has serious consequences. For non-Jews, of course, it is offensive. But for Jews, it’s over-determinative. Steinsaltz writes, for example, that the secular, assimilated Jew “can emerge only when he consciously and deliberately decides to stop acting and to try again to be himself, returning to the original essential design of his own being.” Once one posits an essential character trait, it’s easy to make judgments about those who appear to deviate from it.

Steinsaltz is a prodigious scholar but a very conservative thinker. In other hands, the anthropology of the Tanya might be translated to all people, and the Jewish thirst for unity might be expressed in a variety of forms. But especially in “We Jews,” it is clear that Jews are special and that the only quintessentially Jewish path is that which leads through the traditional understandings of Torah and commandment. Fair enough: Steinsaltz is, in the end, a Hasidic Jew, and he has the courage of his convictions — a steadfastness that probably has a lot to do with Chabad’s ideological success. But is there anything in “Learning From the Tanya” — or Chabad Hasidism in general — that can speak

to those unable or unwilling to swallow this view of Jewish particularism?

It depends. For some, the enthusiasm, messianism and nationalism (which, of late, has expressed itself in far-right Israeli political activism) may be too much to set aside. But for others, there is, in “Learning From the Tanya,” in Chabad theology and in Hasidic prayers, parties and tisches (festive Sabbath gatherings), a consciousness that transcends parochialism: a spark of mysticism united with an engagement of the everyday world. Chabad’s distinctive embrace of the everyday comes from its unique theology, which seeks the unity of opposites. On the one hand, Chabad’s masters say, that which seems to be real is actually only real from our perspective; that which seems to be invisible is actually all there is. On the other hand, it is precisely in the apparent, material world than God is manifest. That apparent world can appear alienated, and peopled with isolated, separate selves who find it hard to connect with one another. Or, at times, it can appear wholly Divine. Or — and this is the critical point — it can be both at the same time. Thus the mystical path is neither running away from the material world nor denying the spiritual one. Rather, it’s a“paradoxical ascent to God,” as described in the book of the same name by Rachel Elior, a professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (and one of my teachers). It involves a constant vacillation between being and nothingness, Divine perspective and human perspective, transcendence and immanence. For the writer of the Tanya, and his disciples, the gift of Moses was not so much seeing God in a thorn bush as seeing God in everything else.

Steinsaltz is at his best in “Learning From the Tanya” when he expresses, in a personal way, how these theological ideas operate in real, messy life. On suffering, for example, Steinsaltz observes that it can be seen merely as the “concealment of the Divine countenance,” and a “gift” from God. On the other hand, he says, to deny the reality of one’s pain in favor of clever theology is to miss the point, because “a person who has never been challenged has never engaged in a dialogue with God; and his connection to God, if indeed it exists, occurs on a much lower level. The mind may know oneness, in other words — but the heart still knows duality, and suffers as a result. To deny the reality of that experience, in favor of some higher “truth,” is to miss the point of creation itself, which is present in the manifest world.

Ultimately, “Learning From the Tanya” and “We Jews” are works of an insider. Elior’s work and that of Naftali Loewenthal (himself a follower of Chabad) and Louis Jacobs are better academic introductions to Chabad. Fishkoff’s and Ehrlich’s books are better for behind-the-scenes looks at the Chabad organization. And the many disciples of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — both early missionaries for Chabad who never fully left the fold — may be more appealing for those seeking the anarchic, mystical spark without the traditional theology, lifestyle or gender roles. Yet it is Steinsaltz who, more than anyone else, embodies the genuine face of Chabad: outward looking, yet holding fast to traditional, often troubling, ideas; erudite, yet Orthodox; mystical, yet material, and perhaps, finally, paradoxical.



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