Differing with Tanya


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: Dear Rabbi Moshe-Ben Chaim,


I have been following your discourse against the Tanya. The Ramban - a distinguished Kabalist - warned against the study of Kabbala. He maintained that to the eye of a person untrained in Kabbala, some principles would appear heretical, and indeed are heretical, as the reader understands them. Specifically, he warned that study of Kabbala would lead to violations of the unity of G-d. I do not believe that you are a Kabalist, or that you have studied it under the tutelage of a master kabbalist as demanded by the Ramban. Would it not be more appropriate to state that “the views of Tanya as understood by the average and even learned reader are heresy”, rather than stating that the Tanya is objectively making a heretical statement? It would seem reasonable and more palatable to propose that that Jews obey the instructions of the Ramban and humbly refrain from studying works based on Kabbala that lead to heretical views.

Does not disseminating the truth demand that we act in a manner that will be accepted by the people whenever possible? Have you located any Jewish authority that specifically calls the Tanya’s statements you refer to heresy? When heresy is being taught, it is the responsibility of Torah leaders to warn against it. Presumably, this is why you have spoken out in the paper. There is no doubt that the principle of the Tanya as taught in many yeshivas and as understood by many, is heretical.


I commend you for making this point clear and question only the rejection of stating that we do not know what the Tanya may have meant as the Ramban indicated should be our approach to the Kabbala. I want to thank you for the incredibly valuable Torah we are privileged to read weekly and urge that you frame the ideas in a manner that will keep your readers onboard.


Mesora: A Rabbi once taught that when studying Zohar or true Kabbala, one must use the same approach as is used in Talmud: the ideas must make sense. Either something makes sense, or it doesn’t. If we do not see reason in something, we do not say, “it is reasonable, but I don’t know it”. That would be a lie. But, perhaps in some other cases we are ignorant of an idea. Well, in such a case, we say, “I don’t know what so and so means.” But when someone sees an error, and it is clear to his mind, nothing demands that he feigns a false humility, and simultaneously give credit to the author, if undeserved by the text. Honesty must be embraced.


Unfortunately today, many Jewish educators have decided to teach Kabbala, or what they think is Kabbala, before they or their students have mastered Chumash and Talmud. These teachers recite statements, which are incoherent, but the audience feels they are crossing into “spiritual” or “mystical” realms, they feel they are privy to what others don’t know, they feel special. So they “ooh” and “ah” their lecturer or Rabbi. It is satisfying to one’s ego to feel he or she is delving into these areas…even when they don’t have a clue as to what they just heard. Some people go so far as to say about a Kabbalist’s class, “You don’t know what he means, but he is right.” Astounding that such words are uttered. If one does not understand someone else’s words, it is ludicrous to make any evaluation. Certainly, one cannot comment he is right. For if “You can’t know what he means”…perhaps he is wrong.


Having said that let me add that I appreciate your patient and reasonable approach to this heated topic. Many others have written in seething about how I could say that something found in Tanya is heresy, even though I repeatedly cite Rambam as supporting my claim. Unfortunately, these others never came forth with “reasoning”, so their words were unsubstantiated and of no value. It troubled them more that their venerated book was under scrutiny, than the fact that they had no reason for their complaints. They sought to defend a personality, instead of honestly facing an issue with objective reasoning; what is demanded from a student of Torah, a student of reality.


First off, this is not a matter of Kabbala: the quote is taken from the book of Job. I do not agree with your position, that it is the “readers’ understanding” (and not Tanya itself) which is heretical. As another Rabbi expressed just today, “If we are honest about how man communicates, the Tanya’s words themselves cannot be understood in any other way.” Let us review exactly what is found in Tanya:


“The second, uniquely Jewish soul is truly part of G-d above.”

“A part of G-d above” is a quotation from Scripture (Job, 31:2). The Alter Rebbe adds the word “truly” to stress the literal meaning of these words. For, as is known, some verses employ hyperbolic language. For example, the verse describing “great and fortified cities reaching into the heavens” is clearly meant to be taken figuratively, not literally. In order that we should not interpret the phrase “ a part of G-d above” in a similar manner, the Alter Rebbe adds the word “truly”, thus emphasizing that the Jewish soul is quite literally a part of G-d above.” (Lessons In Tanya,” published by “Kehot” [mainstream Lubavitcher Press] with a “Preface” by the Rebbe.)


Read those words again: “the Alter Rebbe adds the word ‘truly’, thus emphasizing that the Jewish soul is quite literally a part of G-d above.”  This quote clearly displays the author’s desire that his words are NOT to be taken metaphorically, but quite literally. Having said that, we respond that such literal understanding of a “part of G-d is absolute heresy. There is no room to maneuver here.


It is dishonest to reinterpret words, of which we clearly know their meaning with 100% accuracy. All people – including the author of this Taniac portion – understand the word “truly”. To suggest the author did not mean “truly” when he writes “truly” is not being honest. To suggest that “truly” is not to be understood as I understand it, equates to saying that when the Tanya says the word “God” it may really means “man”. Now, just as no one would accept that error as the author’s intent, one must be consistently honest and agree that when the author writes “truly”, he means “truly”.


Let me be clear: I never imputed heresy to a specific man; rather, I referred to Tanya’s “words” as heretical. I called this specific part of Tanya heresy. I do not know who wrote these words. Many corruptions and forgeries have been discovered in Jewish texts, so we do not know who wrote, “the Jewish soul is quite literally a part of G-d above”.  But this statement as is, conforms to that which Maimonides refers to as heresy. Had the author of these words desired to communicate that this is metaphoric; he misleads the reader by writing “truly”. Authors know how to express themselves.


We always seek to judge others favorably. But we do not judge favorably if it means we deny truth. Let us not deny what is written. A Rabbi once discussed Ramban’s ‘apparent’ accusation of Abraham’s descent to Egypt during the famine: “Rav Moshe Feinstein z”tl said regarding this Ramban, that we must disregard it. Even though this specific commentary is found in books baring Ramban’s authorship, Ramban did not write it. Rav Moshe Feinstein did not accept that Abraham was to blame for living in accord with reason: Abraham possessed no food, so he traveled to Egypt to obtain his essential needs. It may very well be that a religious zealot included – in Ramban’s name – his own subjective, religious wishes.”  This is what the Rabbi quoted from Rav Moshe Feinstein z”tl.


Regardless of who wrote these words in Tanya, their clear understanding is not in line with Torah fundamentals: God is not similar to His creation, which includes the phenomenon of division. Hence, “parts” cannot be ascribed to God. Nothing we apprehend can be ascribed to God. God says no analogy may be made to Him: “To what shall your equate Me that I should be similar?” (Isaiah, 40:25) God clearly denies man the ability to create any analogy to Him. “For man cannot know Me while alive” (Exod. 33:21) expresses man’s limits in understanding God. This was addressed to Moses. And if Moses cannot know anything about God, those of much lesser knowledge are wrong to suggest positive and heretical descriptions, of He, who cannot be known.


As Torah educators, we must disseminate truth, without compromising its message, regardless of how many may be disturbed by what they read. The objective that “Torah be accepted by the people whenever possible” as you write, must come second to the Torah’s message. Therefore, we do not compromise the message so “more people may be reached”, for in this case, we may reach more, but with a lie. It is crucial that truth be taught – if only to a single person – in place of teaching falsehoods to the many. And when someone sees the truth so clear to his mind, he need not gain endorsements.


Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with me,


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim