ההשקפה החב"דית באספקלריית דברי ימי אדמור"י וחסידי חב"ד לדורותיהם

Monday, November 30, 2015


Assorted reflections on the oral teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Idealistic Realism of Jewish Messianism

The real deal on Chabad’s apocalyptic calculations, and why Jews have always predicted elusive ends.

The suspicion with which Jewish messianism is often regarded may well stem from the apparent contradiction it embodies. To await the Messiah is to live a life marked by optimistic anticipation for an unimaginably brighter future. But to live as a Jew requires full immersion in the demands of the present moment. The false-messiahs that litter the history of Jewish exile are nothing other than the failure of real events to live up to idealistic hopes. And yet a Judaism stripped of messianic inspiration is inconceivable. It is precisely such inspiration that has continued to sustain us despite all the trying upheavals of the ages.
For messianism to be authentically Jewish, and for it to inspire an authentically Jewish future, it must somehow bridge the gap between idealism and realism. As the writer, philosopher and critic Leon Wieseltier has put it, “Messianism is commonly interpreted as a variety of idealism. But if idealism is only a part of Judaism’s attitude towards the world, messianism must stand in a relationship also to realism.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Berlins of Oxford and their Opposing Origins in Tsarist Russia

Isaiah Berlin and his wife Aline, Oxford, 1969; photograph by Dominique Nabokov
Last month Aline de Gunzbourg, the wife of Isaiah Berlin, passed away at the age of 99 (see obituaries here and here). Both Aline and Isaiah were scions of the Jewish philanthropic aristocracy of 19th century Russia. Aline's grandfather, Baron Horace de Gunzbourg (aka Ginzberg or Günzburg), was the most prominent backer of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment Among the Jews of Russia. In other words, a leading proponent of acculturation and secularization. Originally Isaiah's family name was Zuckerman, but his father Mendel took the surname of his great uncle and patron, the prominent Chabad industrialist and philanthropist Yeshayeh (Isaiah) Berlin, whose first name Mendel later gave to his son.

Yeshayeh Berlin was not only a follower of Chabad chassidism and a leading backer of the fifth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn (Rashab), in his battle to combat acculturation and preserve traditional Jewish life. Yeshayeh Berlin was also married to the Rebbe's first cousin, Chayetta. Both were grandchildren of the third rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (the Tzemach Tzedek). Chayetta's sister Frumma was Isaiah Berlin's great grandmother.

In short, the Berlins of Oxford were descendants of two opposing ideological factions within the uppermost the philanthropic Jewish aristocracy of Tsarist Russia. Despite the ideological opposition the Schneersohns and Berlins maintained cordial relationships with the de Gunzbourg family, and worked together with them on economic and humanitarian projects of mutual interest. One example, which I wrote about here, was the Chinese matzah campaign of 1905. Although Baron Horace de Gunzbourg initially declined Rabbi Shalom DovBer's plea for help in this endeavor, the latter latter suggested that the former's son, Baron David de Gunzbourg be invited to chair the campaign committee.  

Isaiah Berlin was well aware of his illustrious chassidic lineage, but not at all acquainted with the intellectual and cultural riches of his chassidic heritage. His father, Mendel, fled to London following the communist takeover of Russia, but remained well connected with the Chabad leadership until his parents and inlaws were murdered following the Nazi conquest of Riga, circa 1941.

Berlin himself appears to have met the sixth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, while in Marienbad in the Summer of 1933 (see Isaiah Berlin,Letters Vol 1. [1928-1946], page 56, and Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 3, page 43). In the aftermath of World War Two and the holocaust the family connection was eroded, and Isaiah's impressions of chassidism were too distant and superficial for him to pursue any remaining ties. But Mendel still looked back to the heyday of the Berlin family with nostalgia. In an eighty-six page manuscript dating from 1946 (held today by the Bodleian Library at Oxford, MS. Berlin 819 and MS. Berlin 820) he transcribed his own history, and the history of his chassidic forebearers. He also called upon his son to renew his connection with his roots, apparently to little avail.

For more on the history of the Berlin family see the first chapters of Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff.

The following is an abstract of my related article, reflecting a dialogue between Berlin's essay The Hedgehog and the Fox and Chabad thought, as recently published in Hakirah:
Identity and meaning hang upon the balance that must be struck between the two poles of unity and multiplicity. According to Isaiah Berlin this existential dilemma lies at the heart of Tolstoy’s great epic, War and Peace. All people that are not superficial believe in some kind of cohesive vision. But when the threads of life start to unravel even the wisest of men may be rendered mute. In The Gate of Unity and Faith Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi expands the quintessence of faith into the circle of reason, and fits the square of dissonance into the circle of life.
See also this related article by Rabbi Eli Brackman of Chabad at Oxford University: The convergence of the philosophy on liberty of Sir Isaiah Berlin and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Writing Experience - Finding the Right Words

As much as he was a chassidic rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (known as the Rebbe Rayatz or Friediker Rebbe) also epitomized what it means to be a chassidic man of letters. The following is an extract from a discourse in which he describes the experience of turning lofty ideas into readable prose. As a writer it struck a personal chord with me, and I don't think it is overly presumptive to detect an autobiographical note on Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's own part. This is a free translation of Sefer Hamaarim 5711, page 29-30, the discourse in question was first delivered in 1933.

When revealing an intellectual matter or deep wisdom in writing, the hand writes what rises in the depth of his intellect with all the logical details of that intellectual idea. At that moment he has great pleasure from his grasp of that intellectual concept, and a great desire to explain it in in clearly written prose, each matter in its place, in systematic order. This is achieved specifically through his analysis and introspective contemplation while writing, attempting to find the phraseology and the precise language through which the deep concept will be revealed with clarity, without any mistake falling into any one of the logical elements. Through the power of his thoughts and his contemplation he finds such words that fit that deep concept, encompassing all the details of his logical idea in all their sharpness and precision.  
All the loftiest and most integral abilities and talents of his soul take a part in this. Mind and heart unite and act as one. Their unity is such that that each is effected by the other, though they are opposites by their essential nature. Mind and heart are respectively water and fire by their essential nature... the intellect is cold and collected, and emotion is hot and excitable. But in this unity the cold intellect is effected by the essence of emotion, becoming hot and burning with inspiration of the soul and the desire to reveal this deep concept. Likewise, the excitable heart is influenced by the essence of intellect to organize its experience in introspective thought and contemplation, in order to find the expressions and expressive language that are most fitting to reveal with deep clarity the logic of this deep concept.  
The capacities of the inner mind and heart join together in this activity. Although each of them is an entity of its own, they nevertheless reside in one place. Intellect, pleasure, will, thought, inspiration, and desire combine with one another and complement one another, and all as one join in this activity.              

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Chassidic Dance

"no longer a dance, but a kind of silent prayer, offered by a body of flickering flame..."

The following is translated from the Prologue to Fishel Schneersohn's novel, Chaim Gravitzer:

As soon as the Rebbe had passed through the door, uncontainable joy lifted the great hall into the air. Like a long withheld tempest, Chaim Gravitzer’s melody burst forth from thousands of breasts. The happy tune ignited every corner, and the great hall was as though aflame. The undulations of this melody do not cease to uplift; they flow forth, lifting up and turning over everything and everyone in a whirlwind of immense, radiant joy. The heart does not want to give up, but expands magnificently and burns with rejoicing. Ancient ecstasies seem to tear themselves free as though from chains; ecstasies that have no beginning and no end. Men, as though they have been forever drunk, take each other by the hand, dancing and twirling around the tables. Others intertwine their hands and let themselves go on whatever the world stands. Momentarily some tear themselves free of the circles, carrying themselves like a whirlwind up onto the tables, and with heads thrown back, eyes closed, and hands upheld, they all but dance out their souls. This is no longer a dance, but a kind of silent prayer, offered by a body of flickering flame; a silent prayer where the soul expires and then is born anew...

Chaim Gravitzer is available in the original Yiddish, here.

Friday, December 7, 2012

On the Chanukah Miracle and the Nature of Divine Infinitude

If the deity is infinite and omnipotent, can the deity simultaneously combine two mutually-exclusive events?

The true nature of the divine self is difficult to conceptualize or explain. I do not wish to embroil myself or the reader in an abstract and convoluted philosophical discussion. Instead, I will focus on two illustrative text samples, drawn from the vast corpus of Chabad Chasidic thought.

The first statement is from Hemshech Samach Vov (Vayolech Hashem Et Ha-yom, P.223), by Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch.
"The concept of infinitude (ain sof), literally without limitation, is that no property can be ascribed to the deity, and the deity cannot be defined with any description at all... Even the most wonderful and lofty description cannot be applied - even the description "without limit." Conversely, one cannot preclude anything from the deity, for the deity carries all things (potentially but not actually...) and the deity is precluded from everything. This is the concept of infinitude (ain sof): the preclusion of any description; the preclusion of limitation; the preclusion of any affirmation and the preclusion of any negation; the inclusion of all by default. All this is only possible for the very essentially of the divine self (bechinat ho-atzmut mamash), whose being is of its own self, and who is the true being whose being transcends actual being (aino be'bechinat metzi'ut nimazah)."
The second selection is from Kuntras Mai Chanukah (P. 24), a compilation by Rabbi Yoel Kahn from the talks of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The context here is the famous question of the Beit Yosef as to why eight days of Chanukah are celebrated; if there was actually enough oil for one day apparently no miracle occurred on the first day? The following answer is offered:
"Since the miracle was made in order that the lighting of the menorah could be done in the finest possible way (for according to the law they were entitled to light using impure oil, [and a miracle was unnecessary, accept to allow them to avoid any legal lope-holes]), it makes sense to say that the miracle occurred in a form that allowed the oil to remain completely natural oil [as prescribed by law], without any quantitative or qualitative addition. 
In other words: When the Beit Yosef writes "that they found the lamps filled," the intention is not that the oil was first burned up, and afterwards new oil was created ("miracle oil"), but that the miracle was that the oil had never been burnt up at all, just like the burning bush about which the verse says, "behold the bush burnt in fire, and the bush was not consumed." Accordingly, they fulfilled the commandment to light the menorah with completely natural oil, which remained utterly unchanged (not quantitatively or qualitatively).  
According to this explanation, the combination of the natural and the miraculous is further highlighted. It transpires that the very fact that they had natural oil specifically was achieved via a wondrous miracle that completely transcends the limitations even of a regular miracle. The light of the lamps must come from the oil, and the oil must be turned [by combustion] into fire and light. If the oil is not consumed it follows, however, that the light did not come from the oil. If so, we must say that the miracle was such that although the oil was turned into fire and light, it nevertheless remained untouched. This is a most transcendent miracle, simultaneously embodying two mutually-exclusive events. It transpires that through a completely transcendent miracle specifically they were able to light the oil with completely natural oil."    
For a fun, humorous, entertaining, deeply illustrative and thoughtful re-imagining of how this miracle occurred see The Menorah Files by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tohu, Tikun and Divine (Im)perfection

In a recent post on the New York Times Opinionater Blog “The Stone,” Yoram Hazony discussed the question, “Is G-d perfect?” While I didn’t find the article as a whole particularly compelling, I did find his discussion of the problems of perfection illuminating. The following passage gives us a very accessible way to visualize the failure of tohu:  

“What would we say if some philosopher told us that... a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.”

Indeed, tohu is the simultaneous maximization of all the constituent principles of existence. The result of such perfection is the contradictory absurdity of the terrestrial realm. The following discussion of tohu and tikun is based on a discourse by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Torah Ohr, 8c-10b). 

* * *


Tohu and tikun may best be described as two alternative blueprints for the inner workings of reality. While these two systems are very different, they both are composed of the the ten modalities (sefirot) via which G-d chooses to be manifest. Moreover tohu and tikun actually function in tandem; the physical world that we inhabit exhibits much of the divisive chaos that results from tohu, and yet can be subjected to a regime of order and cohesion that stems from tikun.

Paradoxically, the divisive chaos of tohu actually represents a more intense manifestation of divinity. Here, each of the ten sefirot is manifest with such intensity that no other form of divine manifestation can be tolerated. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains in the present discourse, “The illumination and vivification is manifest with great intensity... Therefore the different modalities [of the ten sefirot] did not harmonize with one another... the one could not be balanced in accord with its opposite, and each was isolated onto itself...”

Due to its intense illumination, tohu fails to communicate the full panorama of divine manifestation. Consequently, each individual modality acquires an autonomous identity and loses its transparency to the divine source. The physical world as we know it is filled with a multiplicity of apparently discordant beings, each of which asserts its individual presence, autonomy, power and importance, and tries to grab our full attention. All of this immense diversity stems from the failure of tohu, and yet holds within it all the vast potential that tohu embodies. Tohu is intense illumination and unity masquerading as intense darkness and discord.   

* * *


Tikun is the antidote to tohu. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains, “In order for creation to survive there must be tikun - limited streams of illumination, different forms harmonized and tempered with one another... The illumination and vivification is not manifest with intensity... therefore... it is manifest with tolerance and, contrary to tohu, two complete opposites can coexist.” In the normal order of things, divinity can only be manifest in a limited form. Each of the sefirot must recognize and validate the role of the other forms of divine manifestation, though in doing so its own intensity is minimized. In the normal order of things, divinity is not manifest in a manner that fully reflects the infinite, absolute and eternal potency of G-d’s most essential being.

Ultimately, however, the purpose of tikun is to repair tohu, and allow the true intensity of the divine self to be fully manifest. The soul of man is an agent of tikun. When the soul is forced to struggle with the burden of making a living, and other worldly endeavors, it is brought into direct contact with a more intense expression of divinity than it could ever have experienced in the celestial realms. This intensity is often perverted, giving rise to the banalities and profanities of earthly existence, but tikun empowers the soul to turn the failure of tohu around. Through prayer, acts of charity and the performance of the ritual commandments, the soul unleashes the vast reservoir of divine potential that lies dormant or misused in the mundane realm, and gives full expression to the absolute intensity of divine essentiality.

For a post on Yud Tes Kislev, see here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Education, Postmodernism and the Challenge of Tradition

Reflections on the Enduring Relevance of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson’s Religious Thought

First posted at hasidology on chabad.org
[I haven't posted on this blog for several months, but have published several articles on  hasidology. In future I will repost all articles published there on Chabad-Revisited too. Hopefully I will continue to publish shorter posts here too, as in times bygone.]

A couple of months ago (March 28-29, 2012), a small group of academic and rabbinic scholars, along with educators and activists, held a deliberative conference[1] at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss the educational philosophy of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.[2] In his opening remarks, Rabbi Menachem Schimdt, director of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, and one of the conference hosts, made the following observation: “Many many people, most people, as a matter of fact, know what the Lubavitcher Rebbe looked like. A lot of people know that Lubavitch has a built a lot of buildings, runs a lot of programs and does a lot of outreach. But in terms of the amazing intellectual riches of Chabad philosophy there remains a lot of work to be done...”
That statement is true across the board. Over the course of two centuries, seven successive Chabad Rebbes were prolific exponents of complex mystical and philosophical paradigms, tackling such issues as the purpose and nature of existence, the relationship between G-d and Man, the nature of divinity, moral authority, the problem of evil, and a host of other theological conundrums. While several hundred volumes of original Chabad chasidic texts have been published, and continue to be studied within the Chabad community, the enduring relevance of Chabad’s vast intellectual contribution is only beginning to be noticed and is little known in the wider world.[3]
This statement is especially true in regard to the last Rebbe, who ascended to the leadership following the passing of the his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Shneersohn in 1950, and led the movement from his New York headquarters for over forty years. During this era, many leaders of Jewish orthodoxy recognised scientific, technological, social and philosophical progress as a threat to traditional beliefs and the traditional way of life. Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, however, saw the potential challenges as opportunities for the advancement of religion. He harnessed new technologies for the dissemination of religious teachings, and as a religious thinker displayed a deep sensitivity to the contemporary zeitgeist and to the changing paradigms of modern thought. For Rabbi Schneerson, the new frontiers being broken did not place religion on the defensive, but on the contrary, provided a unique opportunity for religious development.[4] Indeed, he may have been unique in utilizing deconstructionist strategies as a medium for the affirmation, dissemination and assimilation of theological axioms.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Rethinking the Significance of "Rebbe Stories"

I just watched this video account by Jerry Levine of his "encounter with the Rebbe".

In general I'm not one for miracle tales, nor for "Rebbe stories" in general. Not because I don't believe in miracles, but because I do not believe that miracles display the true greatness of a Rebbe. To me the greatness of a Rebbe, and especially the greatness of my Rebbe, lies in the mystic transcendence transmitted in his teachings.

Jerry's story is not a classic miracle story, in the sense that no unexplained change in the natural order of things occurs, but it certainly does point to some kind of transcendent insight on the Rebbe's part.

But what really grabbed my attention though was the insight pointed to by Jerry himself:

Rather than think of this story in terms of the mystical statement it makes, we need think of it in terms of what it reveals abt the Rebbe's concerns and agendas.

He entirely transcended the mundane concerns anyone coming from a practical / rational perspective, would expect him to address. Instead, he addressed himself to an apparently irrelevant - or solely mystical concern. Only once that issue had been satisfactorily been dealt with did he address the more practical issue with understated simplicity.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hasidology: Studies in Chasidic Thought & History

I'm very pleased to announce that my new blog Hasidology: Studies in Chasidic Thought and History has now been launched at chabad.org/academia 
You can follow Hasidology using this rss feed (paste it into your reader):
I may post occasional on this blog, but Hasidology will now become my main platform. Readers can expect to see fuller, more thoughtful and better researched efforts. Be sure to take a look at my first posting entitled On the Eternal Unfolding of the Transcendent Torah, all comments welcome!
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