Chabad at Stanford
Wisdom Center
R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi Founder of Chabad Bookmark and Share
R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi Founder of Chabad
By: Roman A. Foxbrunner

The teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813) have had a major impact on Jewish life throughout the world. The founder of the Hasidic dynasty known as Lubavitch, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady's approach has come to be known as Chabad, an acronym of the initials for the Hebrew words Chochmah, Binah, and Da'at, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. In his book, Chabad: The Hasidism of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Roman A. Foxbrunner, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, has written the first full-length critical study in English of one of the most significant thinkers in the broad span of Jewish history. The piece that follows is excerpted from the final chapter of his book.

R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady combined great intellect, diligence, and discipline with a smoldering religious emotionalism, sincere humility, profound compassion, and a gift for organization. His Hasidism naturally reflects these traits. It was axiomatic to him that every Jew was created for the sole purpose of serving God. This much was clear from the Bible and rabbinic teachings. It was equally clear from these and later sources that wholehearted devotion to Service could be motivated only by Love and Fear. It was an almost imperceptible step from these universally accepted beliefs to the principle that constitutes the foundation of RSZ's Hasidic philosophy: Service without Love and Fear is not really Service at all. Although perfunctory or habitual fulfillment of the commandments generally satisfied one's halakhic obligation, it does not satisfy one's existential obligation. One could be devoted to halakhah without being devoted to God; indeed, this was precisely what most Mitnagdim had achieved.

The key issue was therefore not how to fulfill the commandments, for which the Talmud and Shulhan Arukh provided adequate guid­ance, but how to attain Love and Fear, for which no written guide existed. Maimonides had advanced the view that Love must be intel­lectual and contemplative, from which it apparently followed that only an intellectual elite could attain it. RSZ fully accepted Maimonides' premise but rejected this conclusion. Service was every man's duty; Service without intellectual Love was impossible; God would never oblige man to do anything beyond his capacity: Therefore, intellectual Love must be within every Jew's grasp. All that was needed was the training in how to reach for it, and this was the function of Jewish leaders from the time of Moses. Under RSZ's leadership this training consisted primarily of diligently studying the Hasidism he taught and meditating on it, especially before and during the prayer.

The potential ability of every Jew to attain Love and Fear collided with the obvious fact that most did not actually attain them, at least not to the extent that true Service demanded. This for RSZ merely reflected the necessary struggle between the average Jew's divine soul, which constantly strives to spiritualize and bring him close to God, and his animal soul, which joins with the body it animates to coarsen his character and thereby alienate him from God. Consequently, al­though intended ultimately to elicit Love and Fear, the immediate purpose of studying and contemplating Hasidism was to refine-which for RSZ meant to spiritualize-one's character.

The first and most important character trait to strive for was absolute humility before God. The animal soul, which closely approxi­mates the ego, operates by setting itself up as a real entity opposed to its divine counterpart. Accepting it as such is man's first step toward allowing it to entice him away from God, since this acceptance is tanta­mount to recognizing the existence of a reality other than God.

Whereas the divine soul is actually a spark of Divinity and not a sepa­rate entity, man's "self'-his ability to refer to himself as "I"-stems from this animal soul, and the key to resisting its blandishments is humility to the point of self-nullification. This religioethical imper­ative is for RSZ a corollary of those seminal commandments that re­quire affirmation of God's absolute unity. Full and continuous perception of this unity, of the truth that nothing but God exists, is granted only to disembodied souls, but one is obligated to approach it on earth by continuously uniting the three "garments" of the animal soul-thought, speech, and action-with the thought, speech, and ac­tion of God as revealed in the Torah and its commandments. Al­though the animal soul itself generally retains its secular character, it nevertheless becomes an indispensable vehicle for serving God and acknowledging His unity.

While the basic theory that Love and Fear are attainable through meditation is Maimonidean, RSZ took this rarified intellectual ap­proach and transformed it into a way of life for every Jew. His teach­ings provided Hasidim with abundant meditation material, as well as high-minded topics for discussion whenever they met. His personal guidance illumined the path for individual Hasidim who consulted him on spiritual problems. He taught them to love each other as brothers, share their joys and sorrows, meet periodically for local gatherings (farbrengen), during which a little food, a few drinks, and many moving melodies smoothed the way for mutual encouragement and exhortation. The goal was selfless Service, but along the way one also attained faith in God's absolute goodness and the joy of dedicat­ing one's life to Him amid the fellowship of a like-minded broth­erhood of votaries. This rare fusion of the intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual facets of Judaism provided Hababad Hasidim with the fortitude to withstand the perennial persecution to which Russian Jewry was subject.

RSZ's Hasidism is based on a world view taken primarily from the Talmud and Midrash, the works of Maimonides, the Zohar, and Lurianic kabbalah. Maimonides' nonhalakhic works were validated by his unsurpassed stature as a halakhist, while the rabbinic and kab­balistic works were for RSZ divinely inspired sources that revealed dif­ferent but complementary truths about God, man, and the world. Since RSZ did not subscribe to the "double truth" theory, this meant that all the teachings about all the fields discussed in these works­ whether religion, science, metaphysics, or psychology-had to be con­sistent. It also meant that one could legitimately take a concept treated in the Guide and reinterpret it in terms of Zoharic or Lurianic kab­balah. The chain of being, which for Maimonides started with the physical world and ascended to the celestial spheres and Active Intel­lect, was extended to include the Zohar's sefirot and the many other divine manifestations that constitute Lurianic metaphysics. Mai­monides' creation ex nihilo was reinterpreted to mean creation through or from the first sefirah. This approach predated Beshtian Hasidism, and RSZ accepted it as a given.

From his Hasidic mentors RSZ adopted the method of explaining theosophical concepts in psychological terms. This was justified by the belief that man was God's corporealized reflection, and particularly by the fact that the moving force behind a Jew's desire and ability to serve God was his divine soul. Since the soul's workings were considered far more accessible than its Source, they were the ideal medium for achieving some understanding of God's nature and unity. Meditating upon that understanding would eventually lead to the Love and Fear of God that were the basis of selfless Service.

Ultimately, each of the main traditional components of Service un­derwent a significant shift of emphasis in RSZ's thought, so that there were clear differences between the way Habad Hasidim performed a mitzvah and the way contemporary Mitnagdim or even other Hasidim performed that mitzvah. Torah-study remained for RSZ the supreme commandment, but proper study now required far more than dili­gence and intellect; it required spiritual preparation through con­templative prayer and refinement of character. Understanding the text was no longer the end of study but the means for uniting man's intellect with the intellect of God. Moreover, it enabled man to deter­mine God's will in every contingency. Since pleasure generally moti­vates will, determining God's will is tantamount to determining what gives Him pleasure. With the proper preparation, this determination is accompanied by the conformity of man's will and pleasure to God's, so that one desires and enjoys only what God desires and enjoys.

Fulfilling His will through a commandment as dictated by halakhah then becomes both an act of selfless devotion and a supremely joyous and pleasurable step toward self-fulfillment. Hence, RSZ's emphasis on studying with an eye toward the halakhic decision, since this re­vealed God's will, whereas the discussions leading up to the decision were reflections of His wisdom, and "the purpose of wisdom is teshuvah and good deeds" (Berakhot, 17a)-returning to God through the commandments.

The commandments that received RSZ's closest attention were Torah-study, prayer, and tsedaikah. Torah-study was for RSZ the vehi­cle for revealing, or "drawing down," God's will and uniting with His wisdom; prayer, the vehicle for ascending to Him through the Love and Fear born of intense meditation; and tsedakah-sustaining the needy-was the act that most closely approximated God's own pri­mary activity: sustaining all creation. It also dovetailed with the Besht's emphasis on compassion for, and brotherly love among, all Jews and was indispensable in maintaining the impoverished Hasidic commu­nity in the Holy Land. Indeed, most of RSZ's pastoral letters consisted of impassioned appeals for tsedakah for this community, buttressed by erudite kabbalistic explanations of the supernal significance of such support. These letters formed part of a well-organized system of fund-raising that occupied a good part of RSZ's time and spared few, if any, of his followers. Whatever a family did not require for bare subsistence could not legitimately be withheld from those who had even less.

Although these commandments, like all the commandments, were to be heteronomously fulfilled simply because they were God's will, the joy and vitality that should accompany Service were of paramount importance. The traditional supremacy of Torah-study in the hier­archy of religious values ha~ made Judaism intellectually top-heavy. Emotional development, both religious and personal, was largely over­shadowed by the quest for intellectual achievement. Great scholars and rabbinic leaders were too often cold and condescending. Rela­tions with family, friends, community, and even communion with God during prayer were frequently neglected for the sake of single-minded devotion to Torah. Feelings of elation or depression, as well as spontaneous or extreme emotional outbursts of any kind, were con­sidered to be contrary to the basic rabbinic values of sobriety, self­ discipline, and moderation.

Following the Besht and Maggid, RSZ taught that every natural emotion could be channeled toward Service, and that, indeed, perfect Service required full emotional, as well as intellectual development. His goal was to educate truly spiritual men who were nevertheless not aloof or otherworldly, but warm, concerned, vital, and sensitive. The Habad Hasid, like the Mitnagdic scholar, was expected to be highly disciplined, diligent and persevering in his studies. -He was expected to master and strictly adhere to every halakhah in the Shullan Arukh that pertained to his daily life. If sufficiently capable, he was expected to master the entire Biblical and rabbinic corpus-the entire Torah.

But in addition, the Habad Hasid had other demands made of him. He would not be admired for living a cloistered life, regardless of how great the resulting scholarly attainment. He would, however, be ad­mired, as one wealthy Hasid was, for contemplating a discourse deal­ing with God's unity while engaged in a large-scale business transaction. Ideally he developed an open, well-rounded personality. The study of Hasidism coupled with contemplative prayer refined his character, while RSZ taught him how to manage such emotions as de­pression, which could not be refined. Scholarly yet sociable; reticent yet a capable singer of Hasidic melodies and relater of Hasidic tales and traditions; austere and somewhat ascetic, yet possessing a refined appreciation of this world's pleasures; earnest but not humorless or somber; deeply religious but not unctuous or pietistic; modest but self-confident; devoted to RSZ but fully capable of thinking for him­self: this Hasid personified the profound and paradoxical system that came to be known as Habad Hasidism.



Roman A. Foxbrunner is postdoctoral fellow, Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies. He received his B.A. from Queens College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University