Sefer Tanya

All Tanya all the time, without Chabad: the sefer itself from an outsider's perspective. I'll be calling this work “Nearly Everybody”: The Inner Life and Struggles of the Jewish Soul

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I only update the Ramchal blog and have abandoned the others, I'm afraid. I do some things now on and . Contact me at feldman AT torah DOT org if you care to.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Author's Introduction

“Nearly Everybody”: The Inner Life and Struggles of the Jewish Soul

(Based on “Tanya: Collected Discourses of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi”)

by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman



There’s a certain dynamism in the Chassidic movement not to be denied. And it’s borne on a series of electric encounters between one man -- who has struggled to amass as much of the truth as he could; to have ingested it, taken it to heart, and rendered it into his very being -- and another one. And the latter is either yearning to do what the first one had already done and looking for clues how to, or is at least hoping some of the wisdom and piety of the former will rub off on him and enrich his being vicariously.

When those encounters can no longer go on for one reason or another and the master is forced to put in writing what he’d always said outright, inflected, motioned toward, alluded to, sighed or smiled about (to indicate when the disciple was on or off the mark), a lot is lost. Rather than seeing the master and “getting it”, the struggling disciple now has to wade through comments and thoughts till he’s fortunate enough to somehow or another hear the master confide in him behind the words in print.

The paradigm didn’t begin with the Chassidim and isn’t only found among them. But it has somehow or another managed to represent the classic Chassidic dilemma. It starts with a great soul emerging from among the ranks who proves to be a Rebbe {“master”); he begins to explicate the inscrutable in unique and stunning ways; a few younger enthusiasts determine somehow that, unlike the others, this one “knows”; others gather about the master based on the say-so of the enthusiasts; yet others come simply because there are so many questions to ask and so few to answer them; then more and more come, much the way the many poor go to the few wealthy. But then things change.

The Rebbe’s words come to be memorized and lionized -- at a distance by this point, since there’ll be so many Chassidim (“devotees”) wanting to see him, and so few opportunities for this. His dicta start to be written about (brilliantly or awfully) by lesser teachers, compared and contrasted with earlier Rebbes, and to eventually be standard fare. Until both the Rebbe and his Chassidim pass on and another Rebbe emerges.

But that's not true if the old Rebbe’s works prove to speak to the ages and to somehow transcend time and place -- either because his message is immortal, because it dwells on the immutable and what lies on man’s heart in every generation, or because it’s effulgent with wisdom and fulfills the fundamental need we all have to understand ourselves and draw close to G-d in the process.
Tanya is just such a work, and its having been set to print is thus an exception to the rule, as we’ll see.


RSZ had been a disciple of the holy Maggid of Mezritsch who was himself the disciple par excellence of the founder of the Chassidic Movement, the holy Ba’al Shem Tov. And RSZ had come into his own. He’d proven himself to be a master of halacha (by composing an updated Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Ritual and Law] at the behest of the Maggid), as well as a master of the Mysteries of the Torah (which he’d studied under the tutelage of both the Maggid himself and the Maggid’s son, Avraham “the Angel”). And there came a point where he began to teach publicly.

The first few students who came to be his Chassidim were at a great advantage, in that they could sit with RSZ for hours at a time, for days and days, and open their hearts to him. They were in search of a path that would finally, finally undo the glitches in their being that separated them from G-d somehow and would thus bring them close to Him. And they found that RSZ was able to provide them with one.

More and more would come with their most intimate questions, fecund with self-revelation. At a certain point, RSZ could no longer meet with anyone other than his closest Chassidim one on one. He resorted to writing down his insights that were based on his years of answering questions the many Chassidim would bring him. He noticed that the questions tended to follow a pattern. And they seemed to fall under certain specific categories of inquiry -- about G-d, about the soul, about human nature, about self-betterment, about prayer, etc.

RSZ’s “pamphlets”, as they were called, came to be widely circulated and copied by hand -- both by his Chassidim, by other Chassidim, and by the opponents to Chassidism. And certain errors crept into the text either by accident or on purpose (when some of RSZ’s opponents inserted heretical phrases into the text in order to discredit him and the entire Chassidic movement).

In the process of time it became clear that an “official version” had to be issued, within which each and every word would be verified, justified, and accounted for. That version is what’s referred to as Tanya (the very first word of the text), also known as “The Collected Discourses of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi”. We’ll now enter the text itself.


RSZ began Tanya with a note to his Chassidim (i.e., this introduction) that acts as a sort of apology. After all, if Chassidism works best one on one, as RSZ’s Chassidim knew to be true themselves -- then what sense was there in writing another learned tome or pious exhortation? Wasn’t that avoided by the other Chassidic Rebbes contemporary with RSZ, most significantly by the holy Ba’al Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch themselves? RSZ would soon contend with the problem.

The first thing he wanted to do was to set a particularly bright and inviting tone for his work, so he cited verses that would exhort all his readers, “great and lowly” (2 Chronicles 34:30) to seek wisdom (Proverbs 8:4); pursue righteousness and seek G-d (Isaiah 51:1); to do what they could to be heard out by G-d (Judges 9:7); and finally, to rest assured of ultimate peace (Exodus 18:23) and life everlasting (Psalms 133:3). The clear implication was that this work would allow for all that. Then he contended with the irony of a Chassidic text.

He acknowledged the saying among Chassidim to the effect that hearing words of Mussar (statements meant to goad one on toward ethical and spiritual preeminence) from one’s Rebbe is better than reading them. And he offered that that was true for a number of very practical reasons.

That’s not to say, though, that the early Chassidim didn’t delve into classical Mussar texts. In fact, no lesser light than the Ba’al Shem Tov himself exhorted his students to study Mussar every single day (Tzivaat HaRivash #1).

RSZ’s point is that the problem of reading Mussar texts rather than hearing one’s teacher exhort him face to face lies in the fact that readers of Mussar (and even of Halachic works) often miss certain subtle remarks their authors make; that not every such work appeals to everybody (despite the fact that on a very deep and subtle level, each and every Jew is inexorably linked to words of Torah); that everyone is unique and has his or her own preferences and predilections which may not be addressed by a particular text; etc.

Yet RSZ decided to indeed offer this written work despite all that. Since it’s more a “manual” than a learned and pious Mussar text; and it’s an “answer-book” for questions he’d had put to him again and again that fit the aforementioned patterns and areas of concern his Chassidim had when it came to their Divine Service.

He also decided to publish it because, as we indicated, he was blessed with throngs of adherents, so there simply wasn’t enough time to meet and counsel each and every one. And because people tend to forget even the best advice, the truth be known, thus having it in print to refer to again serves a very real and practical need.

RSZ assured his readers, though, that each one of them -- each one of us, too, we’re assured by his latter adherents -- will “find peace for his soul” studying this work. That each one will come upon “the sort of advice on everything that he finds difficult in Divine service” he needs. And that “his heart will thus be firmly fixed in G-d” for having read and delved into this work.


There was one ironic “loophole”, if you will, allowed into the formula. Should a reader come to something he can’t understand in Tanya at some point in time, he’s to go to someone in the community recognized as being learned enough in RSZ’s system and thought to elucidate it for him. And he’ll then come to know. (The scholar himself is forewarned not to display false modesty and to claim not to know what to respond if he really does; since that would serve no one, and do harm rather than good.)

It turns out then that RSZ’s teachings can be said to exist in both written and oral form (analogous to the Written Torah, i.e., the Five Books of Moses; and the Oral Torah, i.e., the Talmud, Midrash, etc.). In fact, Tanya itself is referred to as the Written Torah of Chabad Chassidism. Since it’s set down in writing, and thus offers its devotees the advice they’re looking for in black and white. But since it also spawned explications on the part of those scholars the unlearned were to depend on for the true import of Tanya, it has thus produced its own Oral Torah.

Hence we have the best of all worlds now, thanks to RSZ’s prescience. We have written and accessible advice from the master which is a product of his field-experience of what his Chassidim needed to know in order to draw close to G-d. And we have access to contemporary masters who -- rather than use RSZ’s work as a spring board to works of their own, and to eventually come to leave the original work behind in the distance -- would see it as their duty to explicate Tanya to each and every generation that encounters it.

In a way, then, rather than a master sitting knee to knee with one disciple at a time, we’re presented with the opportunity for every single generation to sit knee to knee with the original master, R. Schneur Zalman, and to have his words applied to it by its explicators. Thus we return to another point we made in our remarks about the Frontispiece.

We indicated that RSZ’s point in setting the verse “the matter is very near-at-hand to you -- in your mouth and in your heart-- so that you can do (i.e., achieve) it” (Deuteronomy 30:14) as the lodestone for this book was the following. To indicate that Tanya “is not in Heaven” (v. 12), i.e., it’s indeed *not just the words of earlier, long departed great souls*; “nor is it beyond the sea” (v. 13), i.e., nor is it the words of other great masters who, while closer to us in time, might as well be from the other side of the world, *since they don’t address questions of how to draw close to G-d head-on* as RSZ does. It’s indeed “very near-at-hand to you” (v. 14), i.e., it has been compiled by someone able to adduce the spiritual needs of those of his generation and environs. And its immortal message has been entrusted to the author’s true explicators in each generation [1].


[1] In fact, I see *my* role in this rendition of the original as that of advocate for and guide to Tanya. For while I have the utmost respect for RSZ and this masterful work which I've dwelt on for years, I dare not claim to be one of its explicators by virtue of the fact that I'm an “outsider” and not a devotee of R. Schneur Zalman per se. And in fact, I actually intend this work for others like myself who are fully observant and seeped in Torah who nonetheless aren't Chassidic and wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to Tanya.

At bottom my wish is that the reader will be moved and transformed enough by whatever I manage to do here to go back to the original and to discover for him- or herself the world of things I omitted in my rendition necessarily but regrettably.

(c) 2006 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Sunday, March 12, 2006


“Nearly Everybody”: The Inner Life and Struggles of the Jewish Soul

(Based on “Tanya: Collected Discourses of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi”)

by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman



The following fecund statement serves as Tanya’s frontispiece (as well as a précis of the entire book):

“(The ideas contained in this work have been) collected from holy books, and from eminent and heavenly authors whose souls are in Heaven; (they’re) based on the verse, ‘For the matter is very near-at-hand to you -- in your mouth and in your heart -- so that you can do (i.e., achieve) it’ (Deuteronomy 30:14); and (it's) meant, please G-d, to explain straight-forwardly and in both an extensive and abbreviated manner just how near-at-hand the matter is”.

So we'll start off by delving into all that.


Now, few things tantalize the inner hem of the Jewish heart as much as the thought of drawing near to G-d, knowing Him, loving Him, and being close enough to Him to be jolted and transformed by that.

But who among us is bold enough to feel along that inner hem in fact and not pull back incredulously? And who’d dare say that he or she could ever hope to draw close to G-d once he'd owned up to the sensation? For can anyone alive today, who’s consequently impelled by the demands of the god-of-this and the god-of-that day after day, ever hope to engage with G-d Almighty Himself in fact?

Yet we’re assured by the Torah that we can, and easily so at that. For as the above verse indicates, drawing close to G-d (the subject of the verse, at bottom) is “very near-at-hand to you -- in your mouth and in your heart”. And in fact, when we examine the context in which this bold promise is made we draw even more solace.

For we’re told that once we “take (what G-d has offered us) to heart“ (Deuteronomy 30:1) and “turn to Him, and hear Him out... heart and soul” (v. 2), that He’ll gather us together from the farthest reaches (v. 3-4), bring us back home (v. 5), and “circumcise (our) heart” (v. 6).

That’s to say that G-d will then assemble us together once again (both as a people; and individually, by consolidating our disparate sides), He’ll sensitize our hearts so that we might truly love Him “heart and soul” (v. 6), and that we’ll then be able to serve and adore G-d without all the snags that the aforementioned demigods lay at our feet (v. 7-8). And as a consequence, we’ll prosper (materially and spiritually) (v. 9).

Thus the formula is clear: comply and prosper; resist and languish (see v. 18). The process is neither “hidden or far way” (v. 11-13), we’re assured, and neither more complex or abstruse than that. For indeed, as our original citation put it, drawing close to G-d will prove to be “very near-at-hand to you -- in your (very) mouth and in your heart”; truly, “you can do it!“ (v. 14).

Since Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (whom we’ll refer to as RSZ) did indeed set this as the very motto and theme of this work, it’s clear that Tanya will thus be a manual of sorts for getting close to G-d Almighty that’s rooted in profound Torah scholarship.


It has been contended that the books that RSZ drew from are the works of Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (known alternatively as “Maimonides” and as “Rambam”), Rabbi Yehudah Loewe (known as “Maharal m’Prague”), and Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz (known as “Sh’lah”). And that the teachers he’d been directly influenced by include Rabbi Yisroel (the “Ba’al Shem Tov”), Rabbi Dov Baer (the “Maggid of Mezritch”) and his son Avraham (known as “The Angel”), and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk [1].

Now, the truth of the matter is that aside from the Torah itself, every single book is an amalgam of material collected from other books and from statements made by the author’s teachers.

So what RSZ seems to be saying is that Tanya is indeed “not in Heaven” (v. 12), i.e., it’s not merely the words of those earlier, long departed great souls; “nor is it beyond the sea” (v. 13), i.e., nor is it the words of other great masters who, while closer to us in time, might as well be from the other side of the world, their spiritual climate is so unalike our own. For Tanya will prove to be “very near-at-hand to you” (v. 14), because it has been compiled by someone able to adduce the abiding and immutable spiritual needs of those of his generation and environs (as well as later ones, as RSZ’s adherents maintain [see Likutei Biurim ]) and to make it all accessible to us.


And finally as to Tanya demonstrating how very near-at-hand closeness to G-d can be in both an “extensive and abbreviated” manner, it’s been pointed out that the extensive manner refers to instructions offered in the work’s Ch.’s 16-17, which involves reflecting and ruminating lovingly and reverently upon G-d’s infinite and boundless greatness, and fulfilling mitzvot and studying Torah fervently; and that the abbreviated one refers to instructions offered in Ch.’s 18-25, which involves drawing upon the “love that’s sequestered in every single Jew’s heart which is an inheritance from the Patriarchs” that we can all cull from at any time.

We’ll see that the abbreviated one is second-best in fact, because it’s rooted in a sort of indolent and passive dependance on one’s native gifts, while the extensive approach is preferable since it involves augmenting one’s own self and striving for a degree of spiritual excellence one didn’t know he had.

A descendant of RSZ’s, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch, raised an interesting point about our trying the more extensive and challenging route to intimacy with the Creator. He suggested that some might diffidently back off from such a summons and think it’s beyond them. But he rejects that as being a “trick of the yetzer harah” and a “bitter dollop of false humility”, since drawing close to G-d is indeed “very near-at-hand to you” (citing the verse that heads this frontispiece) and “not hidden from you” (Deuteronomy 30:11), so it's not unapproachable [2].



[1] Nonetheless see RSZ’s fascinating declaration in Ch. 42 in the text that “The essence of knowledge doesn’t lie in knowing and in being cognizant of G-d from writers and books (exclusively). The essential thing is to immerse your mind deply into G-d’s greatness (on your own) and to affix your thoughts on G-d ... until your thoughts are attached to G-d”. For despite his reticense to say as much for himself, that's in fact what RSZ himself did; and Tanya is all and all the product of that.

[2] Kuntress Hatephilla, para. 6.

(c) 2006 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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