Shneur Zalman of Liady

Founder of the Habad school of Hasidism.

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The Tanya

Shneur Zalman's Tanya (so-called after its opening word in Aramaic, Tanya, "it was taught") is a systematic treatment of Kabbalistic and Hasidic themes in the Habad interpretation. The work, in its complete form, was published in Shklov in 1814 since when it has gone into numerous editions. Lubavitch Hasidim often place their copy of the Tanya in the bag in which they keep their tallit and treat the work with a veneration that appears to the non-Hasid to be bordering on bizarre.

The first section of the Tanya deals with the psychology of the religious life. Here the Talmudic division of persons into the righteous, the wicked, and those in between is given a novel interpretation. The righteous man (tzaddik) has "killed" his evil inclination, yetzer ha-ra. He belongs in the ranks of the saints who are no longer tempted by earthly desires. The "in-between" (benoni) is not simply an average person, neither over-righteous nor very wicked, but is the man who does not wittingly commit any sin yet is engaged throughout his life in the struggle between his good and evil inclination. The reason why such struggle is unavoidable for every Jew other than the tzaddik is because a Jew has two souls: the "animal soul," the basic life-force which sustains the body, and the "divine soul," conceived of as a mystical divine spark in the Jewish soul, a portion of the En Sof hidden deep in recesses of the psyche. The animal soul drags a man down, the divine soul pulls him upwards towards God. Only Jews, the descendants of the righteous patriarchs, have a divine soul. This and other features of Shneur Zalman's particularism have been attacked by modern writers but his followers have defended his views, presenting them in a less stark and offensive manner.

The second section of the Tanya deals with mystical theology. Here Shneur Zalman puts forward his acosmic philosophy, according to which the whole universe is "in" God and creatures only appear to enjoy independent existence, just as, Shneur Zalman says, the rays of the sun can be seen and experienced as real on earth but in the sun itself the rays vanish into nothingness. According to Shneur Zalman, improvement of the character cannot be achieved by any direct onslaught on the emotions but only by reflection on the tremendous idea that all is in God. It is when the Jew reflects on the Kabbalistic teaching that the whole universe and man within it are part of a great chain of being reaching back to and included in the En Sof, that his emotions are bestirred and the character refined. As Shneur Zalman puts it, it is the intellect that influences the emotions, not the other way round.

Because of the emphasis it places on intellectual perception, Habad is often referred to as the intellectual branch of Hasidism. In fact, Habad is, in a certain sense, a separate movement, differing in important respects from the highly emotionally charged thoughts and practices of other Hasidic groupings. Yet all Hasidism, to whichever Rebbe they owe their allegiance, accept Shneur Zalman as one of Hasidism's pioneering spirits.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.