Chabad, Reveal Yourself (Guest Post)

Guest post by Rivka Nehorai, AKA Mrs. Pop Chassid.

On the 20th anniversary of Gimmel Tammuz, the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, I reflect upon the irony of my current lifestyle; how did I, a self proclaimed “post- denominational” Jew end up in Chabad Headquarters, Brooklyn, when five years earlier I was sitting in a parking lot, arguing with my now-husband’s shliach about why I didn’t want to wear a sheital or be Chabad?

”But what’s so bad about Chabad?!” he cried out, understandably concerned about how one of his Chabad-loving students could be seriously considering marrying this seemingly Chabad-resistant soul, as I sank deeper into my car’s cushions in frustration.

And then something funny happened – after many years of being together and talking and learning, we came to appreciate each other’s religious outlook, coming to common ground.

But those initial reservations towards Chabad culture and semantics remain in me. The only thing that has changed is that through the blessing of learning at a distinguished Chabad institution, I came to learn what Chabad really stands for. What Chabad really is. I had grown up going to a Chabad shul, being part of Chabad on Campus, and living in a Chabad frum community.

Yet a lingering questions always remained in my mind: ” What exactly is Chabad? What differentiates it from other beautiful, deep outlooks?”

It was only through learning, years later, the complexity of Chabad literature (the discourses and speeches of the Rebbes) from teachers who were willing to discuss the deep, difficult complexities of Jewish thought that I was able to get a taste of the ungraspable.  The beauty of Chabad thought, I realized, was in the Chassidus.  Everything else was just window dressing.

The fact that so few people know this, that I could go years surrounded by Chabad and with only a glimmer of this reality, saddens me.  Chabad’s greatest strength, its teachings, are its most hidden.

I stand up and challenge those who are schooled in Chabad philosophy to somehow find ways to go beyond the simplistic vague ideas offered in most quick dvar Torahs, sermons, and greeting cards about what Chabad represents. Because in case you haven’t noticed, there is a grand injustice happening to the Chabad reputation.

Sure, people ” love” “Chabad” because Chabadniks they meet are warm to them, make them feel at home, etc. But that vast amount of people don’t have any idea about the tremendously beautiful, intricate philosophical platform that is Chabad’s lifeblood and mission. Aren’t we supposed to bring Hashem down into this world through the intellect? Why are the vast amount of people not being challenged in Chabad thought?

Somehow, we must find a way to convey this, to bring this to the Jewish world so that Chabad is not just associated with warm chicken soup and a place to call home (though that is a tremendous blessing to the world).  Somehow, we must find a way to show the world how deep our relationship and knowledge of G-d and His ways can go. Somehow, we must take on to expose everyone to the Real Chabad. First to ourselves, and then to others, the avodah must happen.

  • >What exactly is Chabad? What differentiates it from other beautiful, deep outlooks?

    It is a very good thing that the writer has found inspiration and meaning in Judaism through her studies. However, there is no indication from her essay that she has any real understanding of how Chabad differs from any other traditional Jewish outlook. After all, Judaism itself has always had a “tremendously beautiful, intricate philosophical platform”. Unless the author has devoted significant effort to studying the approaches taken by other traditional groups, Chassidic or otherwise, it is virtually certain that much of what she finds uniquely inspirational about Chabad is actually held in common with all traditional Jewish outlooks.

    • There seem to be two implicit assumptions in this comment:

      1. That because she didn’t detail exactly what she learned from Chabad that must mean she hasn’t learned something unique or at least doesn’t have a basis in other learning (by the way, side note: she learned in multiple non-Chabad seminaries before finally enrolling in Mayanot after we got married and moved to Israel).

      2. That Chabad’s teachings aren’t unique.

      What’s your basis for each of those assumptions?

      • My comment had several bases. The first is my own studies of Chassidus, including Chabad, and other approaches. While every great Torah scholar has own contributions to make, the simple reality is that 99.9% of what is to be found in the classic sifrei chassidus (including Chabad) is not fundamentally different from what is found in non-chassidic works, both from before Chassidus existed, and later. In fact, once one has developed a serious understanding of the background and sources that Chassidus is built upon, it can be difficult to really clarify what is fundamentally unique to Chassidus in the first place.

        This leads the second basis for my comment which is my familiarity, both on a personal basis and in my studies of contemporary Chabad literature, with the general perception within Chabad of what sets it apart from other groups. Almost without exception, this perception is based on a deeply erroneous (and usually disrespectful) perception of those groups, both Chassidic and non-Chassidic. (Thus, for example, the popular, and exclusively, Chabad term for non-Chabad Chassidim as “Chagas Chassidim”, implying that they operate on a fundamentally lower spiritual level than Chabad chassidim. And don’t even get started on the Chabad perception of Litvishe Jews!)

        Thus, while I obviously know nothing about the author (your wife) beyond what she wrote, my familiarity with the issues and with Chabad causes me to be very skeptical of the claim that she has any meaningful understanding of what differentiates Chabad from other approaches. It is, of course, possible that she is an exception from the norm that I have encountered (and my comment acknowledged this), but her post gives no reason for me to think that this might be so.

        • Netanel Paley

          So essentially you’re ignoring the fact that Chassidus, especially Chabad (see Tanya, Samech Vov, Ayin Beis etc.), translates Nistar into more accessible terms. Chassidus is more than just drush with an al derech haavodah message. In fact, one of its defining characteristics is its integration of Kabbalah in its theological and ontological discourses.

          • Do you honestly believe that Chabad (or chassidus in general) is unique in this regard? There are innumerable such works, coming from every part of the Torah world, starting from well before Chassidus came into existence and continuing to the present day.

          • Chassidus is uniquely different.I am prepared to demonstrate that. unfortunately im not Hillel and i will need a half an hour. I can be reached by email rabbimendywolf@gmail.com.

          • bat Sarah

            @eliezerabrahamson:disqus
            why did Chassidus in general and Chabad in particular meet so much opposition at its outset by extremely knowledgeable and often righteous individuals (hearsay – Lubavitcher Rebbe said the Vilna Gaon was a tzadik gamur) if it was not introducing anything unique?

          • Netanel Paley

            Obviously. But the Kabbalistic treatises of the Chachmei Sefarad, the Shelah, the Arizal and his talmidim, the school of the Rashash, the Vilna Gaon, and even Shaar Gimel of Nefesh HaChaim do not make a visibly conscious effort to make their ideas accessible to the general public. Nor do the Kabbalah sefarim of Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz and other modern-day Mekubalim. Chassidus, and particularly Chabad, is unquestionably unique in its self-aware integration of lofty Kabbalistic ideas and themes into sefarim that are meant for scholar and layman alike. This was one of the major reasons behind the Vilna Gaon’s opposition to Chassidus.

          • Honestly, I don’t believe any, even remotely objective assessment of the literature would support this assertion. This is true even for some of the specific works that you mention. (I mean, in what possible universe could the Shelah Hakadosh, (which happens to be a personal favorite of mine) be considered less accessible to the general public than the Tanya (let alone the Baal HaTanya’s other works)?)

          • Netanel Paley

            Ashrecha that you are able to understand the Shelah HaKadosh. I, for one, am not able to understand his Kabbalistic references. But there is a reason why people are not giving shiurim in Etz
            Chaim and Kavanos HaRashash; they are simply not meant to be learned by everyone. Tanya and other Sifrei Chabad, on the other hand, while couched in esoteric terms, is taught and disseminated in ways that make its lofty messages accessible to all. More to the point, the Baal HaTanya wrote Likutei Amarim for Beinonim, clearly indicating that he meant it to be taught to the masses. And Chassidus itself was started to reignite the fervor for Yiddishkeit in simple Jews who could not learn Nigleh capably and were therefore uninspired. One will find no such indications or accommodations for non-Talmidei Chachamim in other Sifrei Kabbalah.

          • I wrote a reply to this comment earlier, however it appears to have been lost in transmission. (My internet connection has been very iffy today.)

            You are certainly correct that works like Etz Chaim and Kavanos HaRashash are not intended for a general audience. However, despite your assertion to the contrary, there is an entire literature of works devoted precisely to making kabbalistic ideas and practices accessible to a general audience. The Shelah HaKadosh is one of the earlier such works (and he specifically discusses the justification for disseminating kabbalistic teachings beyond the narrow circles within which they had traditionally been confined).

            (I would point out that the Shelah HaKadosh is effectively several different seforim rolled into one, covering pretty much every genre in Torah literature. There are parts of the sefer that are indeed quite advanced, but there are also large sections that are fully accessible to anyone with a basic yeshiva education.)

            My point being that Chabad (and chassidus in general) is not fundamentally unique in this regard. On the contrary, this aspect of Chassidus was simply part of the general trend within the the Torah world of making kabbalistic teachings available to a broader audience. This trend began before Chassidus, and continued outside of Chassidus until this day.

            Of course, the Baal HaTanya had his own approach, but the same is true of every such figure. While you may believe that the Chabad approach is somehow superior to that taken by others, that doesn’t make Chabad fundamentally different or unique.

            I would point out that this is actually a good thing. Judaism is based on mesora, and a fundamentally new approach would raise many very serious concerns. In fact this whole debate is somewhat surreal to me. In the entire Torah world, I suspect that it is only in Chabad that people would take offense to being told that their approach is not fundamentally different from the approaches taken by every other Torah community.

            In fact, since you mentioned the misnagdim (although you have greatly oversimplified the nature of that conflict which involved a great deal more than a debate over some subtle theological concepts), the critical issue was precisely the perception that the chassidim had indeed introduced fundamentally new ideas and approaches. An accusation which was denied by Chassidic leaders. Which is perhaps the most ironic aspect of this discussion, in that I am essentially arguing that the misnagdim were wrong in making this accusation, while you (and others) are basically arguing that the misnagdim were correct (at least in this regard).

    • Rebecca K.

      I think what she’s probably referring to is the teachings of the Tanya.

      I live in a Litvish community, and am mostly Yekkish and Litvish myself. The first time one of the rabbis in my community told me he was learning the Tanya, I was surprised. But I subsequently have had many teachers and role models within my community who not only respect Chabad as a movement for ahavas Yisroel, but for its commitment to Chochma, Binah, and Daas through, for example, the words of the Baal HaTanya.

      If you ask someone Litvish why they are reading the Tanya (in addition to the works of the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Dessler and Rav Wolbe, for example), they’ll tell you — because it has a unique ta’am that they can appreciate and learn from even if it’s different than what they’re used to. To say that it’s unique and different doesn’t mean she’s putting anyone else down.

      • I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that she’s talking about much more Tanya. The Tanya is the “written” Chabad Torah, but just like Judaism has so much more to it than the Chumash, Chabad is replete with seven generations of teachings given over by the Rebbeim. Yes, the Tanya is the basis, but there is so much more.

        • Rebecca K.

          I stand corrected. I think I was just shocked at the idea that Chabad is just like every other stretch of Jewish real estate, so to speak.

          • Haha yeah. To be clear I totally appreciated your comment, I just wanted to flesh it out more and clarify the depth of study we’re talking about.

      • Every sefer has its own unique “taam”, and every gadol has his own style and his own contribution to make. Thus, for example, the works of the three figures that you mention, the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Dessler, and Rav Wolbe, are all very, very different from each other, both in style and in substance, and represent significantly different approaches to hashkafic issues. This is pretty much true for every single major hashkafic work ever written.

        The implication of the post under discussion is that Chabad is unique in some way that goes beyond the commonplace uniqueness that is true for all works. That it is unique in some more basic and meaningful way that sets it apart from everything else out there in the Jewish world. And, in fact, that is indeed how Chabad chassidim generally see themselves and their movement. However, as I already explained in a different reply to Elad, my observation has been that this perception is based almost entirely on a false, and very negative, perception of non-Chabad Jews.

        • I think you are misreading her post in that regard. I hear what you’re saying, and it’s definitely something I’ve seen. But knowing Rivka, I do not think that she specifically was implying what you think she is.

          • Having re-read the article with this comment in mind, I think I can restate my criticism somewhat differently. I guess what bothers me is that, with some very minor editing (mostly just replacing the word “Chabad” with “Torah Judaism”), the article could have been written about Torah Judaism in general, and the fact that instead it is written purely about Chabad just reinforces the impression (held by me and many others) that many “Chabadniks” no longer see themselves as having any real affiliation with the broader Torah community.

          • Avrohom Becker

            I hear what you are saying,but the uniquness of Chabad doesn’t invalidate the uniqueness of any other Torah teachings. In fact,Chabad teachings encompass and interconnect all branches of Torah into one unique whole. In other words,you can learn the other branches separately,and then understand them through a much deeper and broader perspective. Rather than lowering those other teachings,this all encompassing and holistic point of view (and yes,some other people allow things to go to their heads) elevates them to a higher status and plane. Chabad teachings should end up leaving you with an even greater appreciation for them.

          • I don’t really see how this is at all responsive to the point I made in the comment you are replying to. I have worked in kiruv and education for decades, and I have difficulty imagining a Jew from any other frum community writing an article like this, that basically uses the name of their specific community/ideology as a substitute for Torah as a whole.

            I mean, is Chabad really about bringing Jews closer to Hashem or is it just about bringing them closer to Chabad? And, having asked this question to Chabad people before, I am fully aware that the conventional Chabad answer is that the two are the same thing, which pretty much proves my point, i.e. that the dominant attitude in Chabad today is that there is no real Torah outside of Chabad. An attitude that doesn’t exist in any other major community in the Torah world.

            It is precisely this attitude that I was referring to when I when I wrote, in my previous comment, “that many “Chabadniks” no longer see themselves as having any real affiliation with the broader Torah community.”

            Unfortunately, even your own comment carries a degree of this attitude. The idea that Chabad provides an “all encompassing and holistic point of view” that “elevates” all other Torah studies “to a higher status and plane”, to the degree that that is even true, is simply another way of saying that Chabad provides one with access to the deeper insights of kabbalistic thought. For that is precisely what kabbala is, after all. And, as I have pointed out at length in other comments, Chabad is not in any way unique in this regard.

          • You write how you are involved in Kiruv.

            1. Have you ever questioned who started “kiruv”? (A word no
            Chabadnik will use since its extremely judgmental)

            2. Have you ever wondered why no other organization until this very day will waste their time putting on Tefilin with Jews in the street? Yes, they will spend money and time to send jews to schools within their organizations institutions, but a onetime Tefilin, what’s the point?

            3. Have you ever wondered why no other organization until this very day will send their Tamlmidim to the far east, or places without any jewish Kehila? Like one Gadol said “I can’t take
            the responsibility that my Talmidim will stay…”

            obviously Chabad has a unique derech. Not an attitude.

            The “attitude” you throw at Chabad Chassidim unfortunately lies within your comment. You obviously have an attitude to Chabad. I use the word attitude because if it was a “concern” you would have found the answer.

            You were not taught penimius hatorah in Yeshivah, and it’s not your fault, but at least be honest and say you don’t know. don’t claim to be an expert on something you are ignorant in.

          • I think your final paragraph really sums up the pointlessness of this discussion. You, quite literally, have no idea whatsoever what I may have learned in yeshiva, or in the decades since. You he no idea what I may or may not know. Yet, you are entirely confident asserting that I am ignorant (and dishonest!) based on exactly one fact, and one fact alone: I am not Chabad.

            Apparently, in your mind, that is, quite literally, all you need to know to assert that I am dishonestly claiming expertise when I am actually ignorant. And this is an attitude that I have encountered many, many times with Chabad. It appears to be a basic premise of contemporary Chabad that no one outside of Chabad, not even world-famous talmidei chachamim, has any meaningful knowledge of “penimius haTorah.” This is a kind of arrogance that is not found in any other Torah community.

            I would also point out that I never claimed expertise, in any area. On the contrary, I consider myself a rather mediocre scholar. That being said, I nevertheless strongly suspect that I may know a good bit more than you do, including, perhaps even especially, in “penimius haTorah.”

        • Here are two questions that open up discussions that inevitably
          lead to the unique approach/Derech in Avodas Hashem of Chasidus Chabad;

          1. Is a Jew who isn’t ben torah a second class Jew?

          2. If you know for sure 100% you will not have any portion in Gan Eden, does that dampen your motivation to fulfill torah and Mitzvos?

          • This is just silly. What on earth would a “second-class” Jew even be in the first place?

            As for the second question, in my opinion it is basically incoherent. Ultimately, the purpose of Torah and mitzvos is to connect us with God, and it is that very connection that is the essence of our portion in olam haba. Ultimately, Torah and mitzvos are, themselves, our portion in Gan Eden. So.you are basically asking whether I would choose to get a portion in Olam Haha even if I somehow knew that I couldn’t, which doesn’t really make sense.

            So if I knew, with “100%” certainty, something that I also knew to be fundamentally illogical and impossible, then I would know that I was going insane. At which point I would be more motivated than ever before to do Torah and mitzvos, especially learning Torah, which “makes wise the fool”, and I would daven to Hashem to send me a refuah sheleima.

          • Actually you imply the second class jew in your own comment.

            you write – ,”the purpose of Torah and mitzvos is to connect us with God, and it is that very connection that is the essence of our portion in olam haba”

            Doesn’t that imply that one who is not a shomer torah and Mitzvos is not connected, thus a second class jew?

            you see, these topics; what is the connection of a jew with hashem, what is Gan Eden, What is a jew, the connection a jew forges through Torah, through Mitzvos, etc, these are appreciated in a whole different way when one learns Pnimius Torah. .

            Until today there is lack of an appreciation to a Mitzvah. Proof to that you wil find someone involved in kiruv – via learning with someone. Why don’t they feel the same importance to ask another Jew to put on tefilin?

        • AnonNiceGuy

          Eliezer, have you ever gone over the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s קונטרס ענינה של תורת החסידות, especially chapters 10-17?

          It is fascinating!

          Here is a link for a free read online: http://download.hebrewbooks.org/downloadhandler.ashx?req=15729

          In those chapters, the Rebbe takes the מודה אני as one example, and gives a synopsis of its meaning
          according to Peshat, Remez, Drush, and Sod. He then demonstrates in detail how Chassidus brings a deeper perspective to EACH of these realms, and how through Chassidus the four of them “feed off each other”. It is simply a breathtaking demonstration of the Torah’s oneness!

          If I could, I would summarize the actual קונטרס in this comment, but it’s already quite concise in the original, so I don’t know how to make it any shorter.

          I think that in this, Chabad Chasidus IS, in your words, “unique in some more basic and meaningful way that sets it apart from everything else out there in the Jewish world”. I don’t think any other genre of Torah even CLAIMS to do such a thing, let alone does it in actuality…

          In a way of introduction, the Rebbe explains there in chapter 3 that, just like what you’re saying, there’s nothing in Chassidus that’s not already in the Torah as a whole. BUT… it is in Chassidus that it’s brought more fully into expression.

          More specifically, in chapter 7 he compares Torah in general and Chassidus in particular to oil, which on the one hand is DISTINCT from all substances (which is similar to what you are saying, that Chassidus is its OWN genre, just like any other), but on the other hand PERVADES into everything
          (which I think is part of what Rivka is alluding to in her post).

          An honest read of it is bound to shed a whole new light on many of the discussions in the feedbacks here, including the (partially false) impression that people have that the purpose of Chassidus is to explain kabbalistic ideas (see chapter 1 there)…

          All the best to everyone!

          • For various reasons, I have some misgivings on continuing this discussion, so I will keep this response very brief.

            In my opinion, the kuntrus that you have referred to is an almost perfect illustration of exactly the point I have been making. While the entire point of the kuntrus is precisely to argue that chassidus (by which the author means Chabad and only Chabad) is a “new light”, a “a revelation of an aspect of G-d hitherto concealed.”

            This is simply asserted by the author for the first half of the essay. (He justifies this claim by reference to a maamar of the Rebbe Rashab, however this reference is very problematic in that the Rashab is clearly speaking of chassidus in the classical sense. In my opinion, to read that discourse as referring to the chassidic movement of the Baal Shem Tov (let alone specifically Chabad) is tendentious at best.)

            In the latter portion of the essay the author attempts to illustrate his point by showing how chassidus provides unique insights into the various “conventional” interpretations of “Modeh Ani.” However, much of what he says is not only not unique, but not even all that original. And while he does provide some new insights (to my limited knowledge), they are not fundamentally different from the kinds of insights to be found in innumerable other Torah works.

            The only truly unique aspect of what he writes is the continual assertion that such insights are not to be found anywhere else. This is something that is only found in Chabad writings of the past century.

  • Malka Hellinger Forshner

    So, what are you suggesting, Rivka? Or are you just saying we need to explain ourselves more clearly….When ever we have people around our table making l’chaims, Shabbos, Yom Tov, or a farbrengen, my husband or I will make a l’chaim to the Rebbe, saying “since if it wasn’t for him, we all wouldn’t be sitting together!” –they still kind of look at us like we’re aliens for saying such a thing! I’m not so sure that they want to hear too much Chabad philosophy…….but they do like our food! (never mind warm chicken soup, the warmth is usually schug and matboucha!) I would love to touch them on a deeper level, but sometimes it’s “hit and run” — never knowing when someone will reappear on our doorstep…..

    • I think the comment about the Rebbe is the opposite of what Rivka is talking about here. She’s more saying: what did the Rebbe SAY? It’s very hard for an outsider to connect with the concept of a rebbe (speaking from experience here), but it’s much easier to connect with emes.

      • Malka Hellinger Forshner

        OK, so what can we say? I would love to share the emes of Torah and Chabad chassidus with our friends and guests….I find that many people that we encounter have a very short “spiritual attention span” and beyond listening to a story, we lose them…just to keep the conversation off of movies, shopping, and “LH” is a challenge!

        • bat Sarah

          good point. common and legitimate struggle. maybe try to make it personal.

  • I’m not Chabad, but I think what is being described is the tension that any intellectual movement experiences when it tries to become a mass movement. The “beautiful, intricate philosophical platform” necessarily gets watered down because only a certain subset of the group will be able to fully understand and internalize it. Moreover, a philosophical platform is a hard sell to a mass audience which does indeed find human warmth and chicken soup easier to appreciate and digest. In the end a balance must be struck between the two, although there are perhaps a range of points at which it can be struck.

    • I think part of the issue that Rivka is pointing out the fact that most people aren’t even AWARE that Chabad has its own intellectual and philosophical perspective. Or that it has a rich tradition involving 7 generations of teachings.

      • I don’t think this invalidates my point. The fact that so few people are aware of this philosophy may well be a product of having to appeal to a broad base – many people simply aren’t interested in complex philosophies. However, they are interested in chicken soup.

  • Essentially Eliezer and Rivkah are bringing out the same point;

    Eliezer is asking; why are the zohar, Kabballah & Chassidus called Pnimius Hatorah,thus differentiating them from the works of Chofetz Chaim, Rav Dessler and Rav Wolbe which are part of Nigleh? That is a great question! That is exactly the point of Rickah’s article, people are not aware of Chabad’s Teachings. It is impossible for one to learn Chabad teachings on their own.

    • Oy gevalt…

      • you mean Gevaldig!

        Please don’t take me as confrontational. I totally understand where your coming from. after all its impossible to appreciate chabad teachings without a teacher! Being a chabad chossid is like being a lamdan, no one is born a lamdan. it takes time. we need to question until we understand. But, we need to want to understand. and grab the answers when the become available. otherwise we are fooling ourselves.

        • I have to assume that you are completely unaware of how arrogant and condescending this comment comes across, especially when directed towards someone who has been involved in Torah study and education for his entire life (and I suspect I am a good bit older than you).

          • Eliezer, precisely because you have a life of learning i assume you wont take me as condescending. this is derech halimud to learn, ask, and answer. I would love to connect and hear from you what you’ve studied in chassidus and what kind of conclusions you’ve come to. I stress again like the author brings out in the article that its impossible to really understand chassidus on your own.

  • Uriel Dunn

    No hats allowed on the beama!

  • Avrohom Becker

    I think that a part of the problem lies with the fact that many don’t know how to explain Chabbad Chassidus in laymen’s terms,in plain English. Also,they don’t know how to make it personal,how to explain things to others from their point of view.