Learn­ing from the Tanya, Vol. II

  • Review
By – July 30, 2012

This is the sec­ond of Rab­bi Adin Steinsaaltz’s pro­ject­ed three vol­ume set on The Tanya, which is the crys­tal­liza­tion of the Chabad-Lubav­itch Hasidic philo­soph­i­cal sys­tem. The trans­la­tors dif­fer from the first vol­ume but there is no dis­cernible uneven­ness or styl­is­tic anomaly.

Hasidism enfran­chised mass­es of East­ern Euro­pean Jews in the after­math of the Shab­be­tai Zvi heresy and the Chmiel­nic­ki mas­sacres. The appeal was not intel­lec­tu­al but vis­cer­al. Jews could express them­selves through joy, danc­ing, prayer, and devo­tion to their rebbe. Many great lead­ers emerged, as did a vari­ety of styles and approach­es. Rab­bi Shneur Zal­man of Liady, an accom­plished schol­ar and major Hasidic leader, devel­oped in book form a con­cep­tu­al and philo­soph­i­cal frame­work for his under­stand­ing of the Hasidic world-view. This book, The Tanya, became and still is the holy writ of the Lubav­itch move­ment. It is rev­er­ent­ly stud­ied, but as with many schol­ar­ly works, not always ful­ly understood.

Hasidic doc­trine draws heav­i­ly on Kab­bal­is­tic teach­ings. There are also mul­ti­ple rab­binic and Bib­li­cal ref­er­ences expressed in often veiled lan­guage. The net result is that this core text requires a skilled and learned teacher to be acces­si­ble to all but the most learned among the Hasidim. Rab­bi Stein­saltz is that teacher. Insert­ed in between para­graphs are short expla­na­tions or com­ments which make the text some­what more under­stand­able. Sim­i­lar to the way he inserts a few words in his com­men­tary to the Tal­mud, these focused expla­na­tions often clar­i­fy dif­fi­cult passages.

The Tanya attempts to get the aver­age Every­man to real­ize his or her poten­tial despite human short­com­ings. We are called beinon­im, lit­er­al­ly in-betweens — not saint­ly and not ful­ly wicked. Nev­er­the­less it is pos­si­ble to reach great heights, some­times because we rec­og­nize our flaws. It is a work of great psy­cho­log­i­cal under­stand­ing and prob­ing of the psy­che. Man can ele­vate him­self spir­i­tu­al­ly; these teach­ings pro­vide the path. How­ev­er, despite a fine trans­la­tion, a com­men­tary and a teacher is still nec­es­sary. In fact, Tanya class­es are a sta­ple of Chabad activ­i­ty, often either before or imme­di­ate­ly after dai­ly prayer ser­vices. Some­times it is just recit­ed as a mantra. Oth­er times it is stud­ied line by line, ana­lyzed and dis­cussed. Rab­bi Stein­saltz has helped to make this work more acces­si­ble for those who wish to work on their souls as well as for those who wish to under­stand how this process takes place.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions