What is Chabad
Can a single chapter even begin to describe the entire Chabad philosophy? No book today provides a systematic outline of the basic teachings espoused by Chabad Chassidism. A physics professor and baal teshuvah has this to say:
“In 1964, when I was still taking my first steps on the path to Judaism, I tried to master the basics of Chassidism. Once I told my teacher that I was extremely surprised to find out that Chassidic books were nothing like the academic textbooks I was used to. In physics, for example, the textbooks set forth the foundations of the science, presenting the information in a detailed and orderly fashion. They begin by defining the main concepts and terms, and then go on to describe the basic laws. This is followed by practical applications, and so on. As a result, after studying such a textbook, even a mediocre student will have a basic understanding of the subject. The same is true for other sciences. Why, then, is there no systematic textbook on Chassidism? My teacher replied that I was not the first to ask this question. One of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbes was asked about this; his reply was that Chassidism is not solely a theory or a system of views and opinions. Chassidism cannot be understood and studied only through textbooks and only by means of logical thinking. Chassidism must be embraced with one’s heart and soul. Talking to a Rebbe, or at least a mentor – an elderly Chassid seasoned by many years of the Chassidic way of life – is indispensable. Farbrengens are certainly the most reliable way to study Chassidism. However, a farbrengen has nothing in common with a university lecture. A farbrengen is like music that resounds through and beyond the words uttered by the Rebbe. This music enters and elevates the soul, and purifies and sharpens the mind. Learning to observe the commandments with joy and devotion is equally impossible through books. Chassidism, in fact Judaism in general, must be lived. Only then can one hope to one day attain an understanding that will open the gates of the mind in a way that no systematic textbook ever could. That is why books on Chassidism are so different from academic textbooks.”
The Tanya is the cornerstone of Chabad philosophy. Though it is physically small, it is unequaled in the depth of its insights into the physical and spiritual spheres of Jewish life.
Discourses by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, on Chabad philosophy and its significance in our time comprise hundreds of volumes. The Rebbe is the seventh leader in a chain that began with the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman. Each Rebbe contributed his share to the treasury of Chabad thought. Countless books and hundreds of thousands of pages are devoted to discourses, talks, letters, replies to questions, and commentaries.
Like the Baal Shem Tov, Chabad philosophy made no fundamental changes in Judaism; all it did was shift the emphasis and raise certain concepts to a higher level of significance. It has absorbed the incalculable treasures of Kabbalistic works – the Zohar, the teachings of the Holy Ari, the manuscripts of Chaim Vital and others – presenting these pearls of wisdom in a form that can be easily understood not only by gifted and learned sages, but also by ordinary Jews.
The wisdom of the Kabbalah, coupled with the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, formed the foundation on which the Alter Rebbe built his philosophy. Subsequently, each Rebbe in the Chabad dynasty enriched and developed this philosophy. Chassidism is the “wine of Torah,” an extension of Torat haNistar “the hidden Torah,” though everything in Chassidism is rooted in the revealed Torah – the Tanach and the words of the Talmudic sages. The phrase “wine of Torah” alludes to the fact that, just as wine enriches the meal, Chassidism provides an added, fuller relish for Torah study. The difference is so great that the student is often astonished: how did he study without this new taste?
The most serious and complex issues of Chassidism are explored in the ma’amarim – the Rebbes’ discourses during farbrengens. These discourses are delivered in a particular style marked by a distinctive chanting intonation. Recent discourses have been recorded and circulated both in manuscript and printed form.
The Rebbe’s ma’amar is a highly elaborate composition incomprehensible to someone unfamiliar with its style, structure and special concepts. The discourse usually begins with one or more quotes from the Tanach or the Talmud, which are then analyzed and interpreted from the point of view of Chassidism. A person capable of appreciating the beauty of abstract thought and the gift of conducting a complex and elegant logical analysis is certain to derive great intellectual pleasure from studying these discourses. The main virtue of the discourse is the revelation of hidden meanings concealed in the holy books, revealing an abstract, comprehensive and harmonious picture of the Creator and His creation. In the process, the reader begins to understand that the created world cannot exist by itself; if at times we perceive it as self-sufficient that is only because the material shell keeps us from discerning the all-powerful Creator, the inexhaustible source of life. The reader also begins to understand the role assigned in this world to the Jews, who have an animal, earthly soul, and also a divine spark of G*d sent from above. The ma’amarim also contains practical instructions designed to ensure that Jews perform their divine mission to the fullest extent possible.
In addition to the ma’amar, which is an in-depth analysis of a given topic that requires prior preparation to be understood, the farbrengen often includes one or more sichot – talks whose style and framework are much more accessible to the uninitiated. However, the sichot also touch upon profound and complex issues.
Chabad requires its followers to invest major effort in Chochmah (Wisdom), Binah (Understanding), and Da’at (Knowledge) – the three tenets of Chabad-Lubavitch philosophy – in an attempt to understand the infinite Creator to the extent that limited human reason is capable of such understanding. Only deep Torah study can bring us to recognize G*d’s presence in the entire created universe, which He rules by means of Torah. Both the base material world and the loftiest spiritual realms are only reflections of G*dliness. At the same time, the G*dly soul granted to the Jews is a particle of G*d Himself. The realization that only G*d truly exists, while the manifest material world is merely His reflection (ziv haShechinah), infuses us with love and fear of G*d. The principle of “wisdom-understanding-knowledge” requires us to predicate our activities on reason rather than emotion. This sums up the meaning of one of the tenets of Chabad philosophy: “The mind rules the heart.” At the same time, however, we must not rely on our own reason, which is limited, changeable, and susceptible to error. Thus, when reason clashes with the substance of Torah (whether Written, Oral, or as taught by the Rebbe), we should rely on faith.
The existence of providential, unlimited divine supervision and guidance is another tenet in Chabad philosophy. Everything that happens in the world, down to the tiniest detail, is under G*d’s constant care. A leaf will not fall from the tree without G*d’s will.
The mission entrusted to Jews in this world is to lift G*d’s creation to a higher level, to infuse the material world with spirituality, to disseminate the divine light of Torah. They should persist in this task until the arrival of Mashiach, when “all those living upon the earth will know G*d,” and His providence will become tangible.
This mission is a great blessing, and those who carry it are assured of a sense of joy and profound satisfaction, even in purely human terms. Those who opt for this course are healthy people, both physically and spiritually. These are creative people, caring for their fellow humans, raising happy families. In these turbulent and uncertain times, times of many questions and no clear answers, this is a straight, clearly defined path leading to prosperity and joy. The world was created according to Torah, and worldly existence is based on its commandments. Thus, anything that is done according to Torah and its commandments is positive and conforms to the divine plan; all that contradicts Torah is doomed to failure from the outset. Even if the going is difficult at times, even if occasionally it seems to our misguided reason that reality contradicts the Torah, a Jew’s every action must conform to the precepts of Torah. In all he does, the Rebbe follows the Alter Rebbe’s instructions that “a Jew must keep pace with the times,” meaning that every action on any given day must be in accord with the weekly Torah section read on that day.
As long as Mashiach still tarries, as long as the majority of world Jewry faces the threat of assimilation, as long as most of the Jewish children in Israel and throughout the world receive an education far removed from Torah and the commandments, the Chabad movement’s efforts are largely aimed at preserving the Jewish people and preparing the world for the imminent arrival of Mashiach.
One of the lynchpins of Chabad philosophy is the concept of ufaratztah – “and you shall spread.” This concept is derived from when the Lord says to our patriarch Avraham, “And thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south.” Lubavitcher Chassidim use the expression “to engage in ufaratztah,” i.e., to spread the message of Torah among the public, in schools, in markets and city squares, in universities, the army, and even prisons – wherever they may find a Jewish soul that has strayed from the path. Their mission is to rise above mundane existence, to spare no effort, to use every means at their disposal – without exceeding the limits set by Torah, of course – to return each and every Jew to Judaism!
The desire to be constantly in the center of life’s whirlpool is highly typical of Chabad. This approach is not new; the Baal Shem Tov urged us to gather the sparks of holiness scattered throughout the world. He taught that no matter where we happen to be, we Jews must remember that nothing happens by chance, and that the Almighty has brought us there to enable us to fulfill our divine mission. It is the obligation of every Jew to try to understand what that mission is in that particular place, and to make every effort to fulfill it. Everything that we Jews experience has the potential to fortify faith and ennoble our actions. That is the most straightforward interpretation of the phrase “In all thy ways acknowledge Him.”
Moreover, according to Chabad philosophy the base physical world we inhabit is but the dwelling of the Almighty. That is why it is so important to illuminate, sanctify, and ennoble every comer of this world. This should be done through Torah study and prayer, but most importantly, through observing the commandments and performing good deeds. However, even if a person has already reached a certain level of Torah knowledge, and continues to delve deeper into Torah, studying day and night and observing every commandment, this is still not enough. If that person fails to share those spiritual riches with other Jews, and does not introduce them to Torah and its commandments, such a person is called “a tzaddik in a fur coat,” who sits through the cold winter wrapped in a fur coat, and a heart indifferent to others’ cold. A true tzaddik goes to the woods through snow and cold, without fear of wild animals or robbers, chops firewood and lights the stove to provide warmth for those who are powerless to provide heat for themselves.
These teachings and these principles have been passed down from Rebbe to Rebbe through the generations, each one adding something unique to Chabad philosophy, adapting it to fit the demands of the time. The present Rebbe, for example, devotes special attention to the issue of the relationship between Torah and science.
The Rebbe’s teachings always encourage the positive aspects of a person or an entire society, and downplay the negative qualities. For example, in teshuvah, the return to one’s roots, to one’s innermost essence and mission, emphasis is always placed on “doing good,” while the notion of “refraining from evil” is considered self evident. Of course, the Rebbe always points out that teshuvah has two facets: repentance for the past, and desire for the present and future good. However, the latter is undoubtedly more important. The Rebbe frequently explains that a criminal can certainly repent every time he commits a crime, but that in itself does not bring him any closer to teshuvah. On the other hand, a Jew who makes a conscious decision to do good and acts on this decision is thereby doing teshuvah, even without feeling strong enough remorse about the past.
Perhaps most importantly, when the Rebbe talks about the lengthy galut, he certainly refers to the dark aspects and the unbearable hardships of exile. At the same time, he almost never mentions the fact that this exile is visited upon us as punishment for our transgressions and our ancestors’. Instead, he invariably describes the exile as a period of preparation for galut that prepares the world for redemption, purifying the universe, “filtering” and “disinfecting” it as it were, ennobling the material world and intensifying Jewish efforts to hasten the arrival of Mashiach.
The Rebbe never tires of repeating that G*d’s providence over every creature is absolute and simple. Each Jew should know that the Almighty rules everything (except, of course, those actions in which the Jew is given the freedom of choice). The Almighty supervises every tiny action in the universe. The Rebbe often quotes a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud: “He believes in the One who is the ‘Life of all Worlds’ – and SOWS.”I4 A gentile sows only because his ancestors have done so, and because everyone else does, and empirical experience shows that “you reap what you sow.” A Jew, on the other hand, sows and waits for the harvest not because he believes in the natural lifecycle, but rather because he has faith in the help of the Creator, the Master of the Universe.
The Zohar says that Rabbi Yesah-Sabah prayed to the Lord to send him food even when the table had already been set, and he had already washed his hands and was ready to sit down at the table. The Baal Shem Tov, in his philosophy of Permanent Creation, follows this same approach. According to the Baal Shem Tov, the world is constantly renewed and recreated at every given moment in time. Without the Lord’s will, the food waiting on the table would disappear in a twinkling of an eye, along with the rest of the world.
This is all related to the idea that “Torah preceded the world,” since the Almighty created the world based on the Torah “blueprint.” “He looked into Torah and created the world.” There is no doubt that the entire world, down to the tiniest detail, originates from the holy Torah.
Two fundamental truths are at the root of Chabad teachings. First, reason must predominate in our striving to understand the Almighty, as much as possible. Second, humanity and human reason are insignificant in relation to the Almighty, so, regardless of the degree of understanding, worship of G*d cannot be guided by reason; it must be based on sincere and selfless faith. On one hand, sages deeply versed in Torah, Kabbalah and Chassidism use their reason to attain the highest levels, surpassing even the wisdom of the sages of the Talmud. On the other hand, a Jew cannot serve G*d by relying on his own reason, for reason is limited, fallible and inconstant, whereas the Torah is eternal and immutable. Ultimately, human reason is incapable of fully comprehending the infinite Creator.
Jews can maintain their connection with G*d and walk on the path of the Almighty with complete conviction only through absolute faith, which transcends reason. This explains, for example, one of the inner meanings of Jewish circumcision. Ishmael was circumcised when he was thirteen years old, when he already possessed the mental capacity to understand what was being done, and could consent to the ritual. Such a covenant, hinged on reason, cannot be absolute, since if the person changes his mind, he might break the covenant.
Our patriarch Yitzchak, on the other hand, was circumcised on the eighth day of his life, without being asked for his opinion. This illustrates the boundless devotion of Jewish faith, in which actions are performed without questions or misgivings. Every Jewish boy, by undergoing the ritual of circumcision, thereby enters into a covenant with the Almighty – and the covenant is eternal.
Similarly, one of the first things we teach a child is the verse, “Moshe bequeathed us the Torah, the legacy of the sons of Jacob, and explain that Moshe’s Torah is the entire Torah, which includes the Written Torah, the Oral Torah, and many other revealed and hidden layers of knowledge. How can a small child be expected to understand all this? That is the crux of the matter: a small child and a learned adult both have the same potential ability to comprehend the Torah in its infinite entirety. It is wrong to think that a child can be content with half-truths, with an “abridged” Torah. Far from it! The Torah belongs to babies (including “imprisoned babies,” i.e., adults, such as Soviet Jewry, who, due to circumstances beyond their control, were unable to study Torah) to the same extent that it belongs to learned adults well versed in Torah.
This concept underlies the Rebbe’s attitude to education. The Rebbe repeatedly states that love for the Jewish people is more than simply one of the 613 commandments, or even one of the most important of them. It is infinitely more than that. Without love for the Jewish people, for each and every Jew, it is impossible to either understand or observe the Torah and its commandments. This key element is expounded by the Alter Rebbe in Chapter 32 of Tanya: every Jew has a holy soul, “a particle of G*d sent from above;” thus love for one’s people is natural in a Jew who realizes that the soul takes precedence over the body. He loves his neighbor as himself precisely because they both share that “particle of G*d.” Love for one’s neighbor is merely another form of love for G*d, for the particle of G*d carried within. Only when the body is considered predominant do distinctions arise between “me” and “you” – and that, G*d forbid, may lead from love to its opposite.
The Rebbe teaches that in order for the Jewish people to prosper and to triumph over its enemies, the Jewish worldview must be based on simple faith and unconditional devotion to the will of the Almighty, regardless of whether the human mind accepts or fails to accept, understands or fails to understand the demands placed on man by G*d.
For example, the Rebbe analyzes a Torah passage in the portion B’Shalach that recounts how, shortly after the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, Pharaoh regretted his decision to set them free. Gathering his elite troops, he raced after the Israelites, catching up with them at the shore of the sea. Trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea, the dismayed Israelites began to propose various ideas for solving their predicament. Some believed that it would be best to return to Egypt; others preferred to fight the Egyptians. Moshe began to pray, beseeching G*d to spare His people. It would seem that nothing could be more natural than praying to G*d for deliverance, yet the Almighty spoke to Moshe, saying, “Why do you plead with me? Speak to the children of Israel, and get moving!”
The Rebbe explains that Moshe and the Jewish people knew full well that the Almighty had commanded them to journey to the desert, where they would be favored with the bestowal of the Torah. So what if the sea blocked their way? Obviously, they were to obey G*d’s commandment literally, and to move ahead no matter what, in absolute faith that the Almighty would certainly deliver His chosen people. In such a situation, the doubts and protestations of the limited human reason are of no importance. Indeed, as soon as Moshe, as instructed by G*d, held out his staff over the sea, as soon as Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of the tribe of Judah, brimming over with faith in G*d, leaped into the sea, the waters parted, enabling the children of Israel to walk across the sea bottom as if it were dry land.
The same theme of boundless faith, unconditional obedience and devotion to the Almighty and His declared will is presented in another dramatic situation in the Torah portion Va’era. The Almighty decides to test our patriarch Avraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son Yitzchak. The patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov are referred to in Kabbalah as a merkava (literally, a chariot, alluding to the fact that the patriarchs used their G*d-given freedom of choice to subordinate their will completely to the Almighty, thereby becoming akin to a chariot, which is absolutely subordinate to the will of the rider).
For many long years, Avraham had dreamed that his wife Sarah would bear a son, but Sarah remained barren. Avraham continuously prayed to G*d, asking Him to bless him with an heir. Finally, when Avraham was ninety-nine years old, he was visited by angels who announced that Sarah would have a son in a year’s time. True enough, a miracle came to pass, and Yitzchak was born.
The Almighty repeatedly promised Avraham that He would give him the Land of Canaan as an everlasting possession, and that Yitzchak would be his heir, whose seed would be without number and favored by G*d, set apart among all nations. It is easy to imagine how infinitely precious Yitzchak was to Avraham, and how Avraham’s heart trembled at the very thought of something happening to Yitzchak. So, when the Almighty decided to test Avraham, He spoke to him, saying: “Take your son, your only son Yitzchak, whom you love, and go to Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will show you.”
Any other man would succumb to despair, would beg G*d for mercy, would try everything in his power to change this terrible decree. Avraham, however, was not like other men. He rose at the crack of dawn, promptly saddled his ass, and loaded it with wood for the burnt offering. Taking two slaves and his son Yitzchak, he set out on his way. According to a midrash, the Almighty set various obstacles on Avraham’s path – a high and steep mountain, a rushing stream, and so on. Anyone else in Avraham’ s place would have used these obstacles as an excuse to turn around and abandon his terrible mission, but Avraham was not like other men. Avraham hurried to carry out the will of the Almighty, knowing that what he was about to do would put an end to all of his joyous hopes concerning Yitzchak.
Jews recite the story of Avraham’s sacrifice of Yitzchak in their daily morning prayer, and every Jew listening to the story is filled with trepidation at the magnitude of this unprecedented human drama.
How is it possible? How can the promises and covenants regarding Yitzchak, his countless descendants, and his inheriting the Land of Israel be reconciled with the command to sacrifice Yitzchak? Far from complaining, Avraham does not even conceive of being dismayed by the seemingly irreconcilable contradiction. On the contrary, Avraham rejoiced in the knowledge that he could do G*d’s will. Avraham is confident that the Almighty acts with compassion and care, and that He will fulfill his promises. Nor does it make any difference that his limited human reason views this as an irreconcilable contradiction. Nothing can shake Avraham’s firm belief that the divine realm is ruled by absolute unity, free from contradictions or inconsistencies. In that realm, fire and water coexist without obliterating each other.
Events unfolded in this way until the moment Avraham raised the knife over the bound Yitzchak. Then the angel of G*d called to him, telling him that he had passed the test, ordering him not to lay his hand on Yitzchak, and reiterating all the blessings and promises regarding the fruitfulness and prosperity of his seed. This is the kind of faith, the kind of attitude to the commandments and covenants of the Almighty that the Rebbe teaches his Chassidim and all the Jews.
Another of the Rebbe’s teachings illustrates the primary nature of the Torah and the secondary nature of the creation, based on two explanations for the fact that the festival of Chanukah is celebrated for eight days. Following the victory of the Jewish rebels over the Hellenists, the Temple was purified, and olive oil to be used in the Temple’s seven branched candelabrum was ordered from the Galilee. At the time, it took eight days for the oil to be made and delivered to Jerusalem. Only a single cruse of oil undefiled by the Greeks was found at the Temple, enough for the seven branched candelabrum to burn for one day. However, the Almighty performed a miracle, and the oil burned for eight days – exactly enough time for the fresh oil to arrive from the Galilee. That is the reason we celebrate Chanukah for eight days. This explanation would seem to be completely in keeping with the views of most Orthodox Jews. The Rebbe, however, points out that according to a deeper interpretation, we cannot accept the idea that the duration of the holy festival of Chanukah was determined by the oil manufacturing technology and the available means of transportation for delivering the oil to Jerusalem. That the festival of Chanukah was to last for eight days, the Rebbe teaches, was laid down by the Almighty in the Torah even prior to the six days of Creation. The number eight is associated with the supernatural, the miraculous, for this number is higher by one than the number seven, which is symbolic of a series of natural phenomena and cycles (the seven days of the week, the seventh year of shmita, when the farmer rests and the land lies fallow). The fact that it required eight days for the oil to be made and delivered to the Jerusalem Temple is not the cause but rather the effect, the consequence of the divine plan according to which the festival of Chanukah was to last for eight days.
The Rebbe often quotes the Rambam, who says, “Jews must realize that the world is suspended in a state of equilibrium between good and evil, and that the commandment that a person can perform at any given moment is capable of tipping the scales to the side of good, and bringing about the immediate arrival of Mashiach. This enormous individual responsibility for the fate of the entire world must guide each Jew in his everyday life.”
The Rebbe teaches that indifference is the worst enemy of the Jewish people in general, and of every individual Jew. A Jew who relates warmly and lovingly to his Jewishness can easily be directed to the path of righteousness. A malicious hater of Torah and Judaism should not be regarded as a hopeless case; his emotions may be misleading him, but as long as he is not apathetic, there is still hope of setting him straight. However, it is extremely difficult for a person who is cold and indifferent to come to recognize G*d. The great harm that Amalek inflicted on the Jews during the Exodus is expressed in the phrase asher karcha baderech, “he made you cold on the way,” which means that Amalek succeeded in dampening the ardor of our souls.
The many hundreds of volumes of the Rebbe’ s discourses encompass a sea of fundamental ideas and concepts, commentaries, reflections and instructions. During the last three millennia, the Jewish people have produced their fair share of geniuses. These included brilliant scholars who shed light on the Torah, extraordinary minds, people who possessed great understanding of halachah and Kabbalah. Yet it would appear that there has never been a sage equal to the Rebbe, whose genius embraces every possible aspect of Torah, whose breadth of vision and unprecedented insight encompass the boundless treasures of Judaism to the fullest extent possible.