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A British Synagogue Bans a Famous Hassidic Text!

As of late, I have taken interest in reading the British Jewish news. After perusing through a number of articles, I came across a fascinating new-story. It isn’t every day a synagogue bans a classical Jewish book, but in one of Britain’s largest synagogues, that’s exactly what happened.  Several students at an adult education class took offense to a mystical tract on self-improvement, better known as the “Tanya,” because of “racist” comments found in its early chapters.  For newcomers, the Tanya is the Bible of the Lubavitcher movement. This book was composed toward the last half of the 18th century, at a time when Russian Jews struggled mightily against the czarist governments who showed little love or tolerance when it came to the Jews. Despite the questionable passages we are about to read, it was one of the 18th century’s first self-help books and most of its teachings are for the most part fairly appealing.

Here are the controversial passages that have created the controversy this past October.

In the Tanya.  the author attempts to explain why the souls of Jews are different from the gentiles: “The explanation of this matter is according to what the Rabbi Chaim Vital OBM wrote … Every Jew, whether righteous or wicked, has two souls, as it says, ‘And the souls I have made’ — that is, two souls: one soul deriving from the side of the kelipa and the side that is antithetical to holiness… also naturally good character traits that are found in every Jew, such as mercifulness and charitable deeds, stem from it, for in a Jew, the soul of this kelipa derives from kelipat noga which also contains good…But it is not the case concerning Gentile souls, for they stem from other impure kelipot which contain no good…and the second soul of the Jew is surely part of G-d on high…” [1]

And shortly afterward, the author adds, “The kelipot are divided into two levels…the lower level consists of three impure and completely evil kelipot which contain no good whatsoever … from there the souls of the Gentiles are influenced and drawn, as are the bodies and the souls of all impure animals which are forbidden to eat…However, the vital animalistic soul in the Jews, which stems from the kelipa…and the souls of pure animals, beasts, birds, and fish which are permitted to eat…are influenced and drawn from the second level of the klipot…which is called kelipat noga…and the majority of it is evil, combined with a slight amount of good…”[2]

As I have pointed out in earlier posts, it is the nature of oppressed peoples to bolster their self-esteem and image by putting down the Other. While this is certainly not the kind of behavior any moral person ought to endorse, it helps to see this passage from the writer’s perspective. Often, tragic circumstances distort the way one spiritually looks at the world.

The Tanya’s Myopia Is Not Unique

Now in fairness to the Tanya, the Tanya’s perspective is by no means unique. Many other Kabbalists  have historically followed this line of reasoning for the reasons mentioned above. In the writings of Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin he writes a similarly:

“Concerning what is explained in Yevamot, ‘You are called men,’ and not the other nations, [the meaning is] that the Gentiles were deprived of the title ‘men’ only where Israel were called ‘men,’ because in comparison to Israel, who are the primary form of man in the Divine Chariot, it is irrelevant to call any of the Gentiles ‘men’; at most, they are like animals in the form of men. Taken as themselves, however, all the children of Noah are considered men…and when the Messiah comes…they too will recognize and admit that there are none called ‘man’ except Israel…anyway, in comparison to Israel even now they are in the category of animals…”[3]Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote: “The dissimilarity between the Jewish soul, in all its independence, inner desires, longings, character and standing vis-à-vis the soul of all the Gentiles–on all of their levels–is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a man and the soul of an animal, for the difference in the latter case is one of quantity, while the difference in the first case is one of essential quality.”[4]

Or take for example, the writings of the famous Maharal of Prague (ca. 16th century):

“Even though it says ‘Beloved is man,’ this does not include all human beings, for the Sages explain ‘You are called men and the nations are not called men’ — The completeness of the Creation, which is given to man in particular, is given to the Jews and not to the other nations… . . . The principal form of man does not appear in the nations. In any case, this image does exist amongst the rest of the nations, but it is worthless, and therefore he did not say ‘beloved are Israel who were created in G-d’s image.’ [5]

Wisdom of the Delphic Oracle: Know thyself!

So, how do we get past the problems and trauma of the past?  Always consider the source and the circumstances that influenced the writer’s spiritual shortsightedness regarding the outsider. Every faith in the history of religion has formulated similar attitudes toward people(s) who were not “members of the tribe.” This is not just a “Jewish” problem as anti-Semites love to argue; it is a human problem that transcends individual faiths. Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, even Buddhism has struggled with its treatment of the Other at one time of its history or another. There will probably always be atavistic forces within a faith because human evolution is morally challenging.  Even Judaism has its shadow aspects that require purging.

Psychologist Carl G. Jung offers an important insight about our “shadow” nature that requires conscious management at all times. He writes:

“It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature. Blindly he strives against the salutary dogma of original sin, which is yet so prodigiously true. Yes, he even hesitates to admit the conflict of which he is so painfully aware.” [4]

Jung’s comments apply not just to the individual, but it could apply to a society’s group psychology as well. To eradicate anti-Semitism, we must understand its psychological origins. Only then, can a collective take the necessary steps to cleanse its soul. But this insight is not limited only to anti-Semitism, it also applies to any ideology that artificially distinguishes between groups of people based on an inflated view of the self.

The British synagogue in question would be wise to understand that persecuted peoples don’t always develop the most refine type of theology. Fortunately, in  nearly all denominations of Judaism (with the notable exceptions of the Haredi, Hassidic, and Lubavitch movements), the spirit of universalism continues to affirm the finest teachings of the prophets and the Sages. Unfortunately, it behooves us to recognize that the great medieval rabbis were men of their age–and European society at that time was anything but tolerant toward people who did not subscribe to their belief system.

If I could offer some practical advice to the British synagogue, I think it is important to be truthful about the texts of our tradition. No rabbi has ever been infallible in his theology; and this is reality is probably never going to change. Despite the hype and fascination with Jewish mysticism, modern Jewish ethics demands that we view Kabbalistic texts with a critical eye. With respect to inspiration, we must take the embers of the past–and not perpetuate its ashes.


Notes:

[1] Tanya, chapter 1 (page 5b).

[2] Tanya, end of chapter 6.

[3] “Poked Akarim” page 19, column 3, he wrote: “

[4] “Orot,” Orot Yisrael chapter 5, article 10 (p. 156).

[5] Derech Hayim on Avot, chapter 3, mishnah 17.

[6] “On the Psychology of the Unconscious” (1912). In Collected Writings,  Vol. 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, p. 35.



Discussion

  1. Yochanan Lavie  February 9, 2010

    It is things like the Tanya that makes me want to turn Karaite. The rabbis invent stuff not in the miqra for their own purposes- to maintain control.

    (reply)

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