Monday, August 01, 2005

First Impressions of Tanya

First, a word on how I'm studying the book. I am reading from Nissan Mindel's English translation in the 1984 Kehot Publishication Society edition. While I understand that reading a work in its original language is preferable, this is an entirely new genre of rabbinic literature for me. The original's linguistic mix of Hebrew and pseudo-Judeo-Babylonian Aramaic is terse and has a jargon with which I am mostly unfamiliar. I have found the explanatory footnotes necessary to achieve even a basic understanding of the text. Occasionally, I had to look over at the Hebrew side to see how the translation was rendering certain distinctions.

As of this posting, I've only read through the first 5 chapters of Sefer Shel Beynonim, and, as such I do not expect that all will have been explained; open questions are par for the course.

That said, the first chapters have already introduced a number of theologically troubling ideas.

The first, and perhaps the least important, is alluded to in DW's post on the subject. And, that is the soul-body dualism which is seeped with divisions of parts and explanations based on Aristotelian physics and assertions about biology that are obviously incorrect to anyone with a rudimentary modern knowledge of either discipline. It is possible, however, to get the physical explanation wrong, and still have a valid point. Chinese medicine, for example, is based on a self-consistent theory about energies flowing through the body. The theory likely has no basis in reality, but the practice of the techniques may work.

The second is that Torah, Prophets, Writings, and, seemingly *all* of Rabbinic literature are a unified whole that has to be harmonized. To the Ba'al HaTanya, disharmony must hide a deeper truth. This is an extension of the basic assumptions of the Talmud well beyond the works the Talmud considered to have such stature. Of course, this is by no means a polemical device that is unique to Tanya. The Torah's (presumably, including the whole body of Torah) place in the universal scheme is established circularly as the material incarnation of God's thoughts, brought down from above and taking the form of ink on paper. What is lost in this kind of philosophy, however, is the human element of struggle with the Torah's words, ideas and concepts. After all, if the rabbis were perfect tzaddikim and everything they said were truly harmonious, then, Torah itself is a stagnant document. Learning without the possibility of development becomes like running against a brick wall.

The ideas that I think should keep a student up at night*, however, are elitism and supremicism.
The Ba'al HaTanya intentionally redefines the terms of righteous (tzaddik), intermediate (beinoni), and wicked (rasha) in a way that makes the tzaddik a God-like figure himself. The tzaddik is not only someone who mostly chooses to do good, but rather, he is someone who is entirely motivated by his good nature. In other words, someone who does no wrong. Not only that, but the tzaddik, by the nature of his soul, has a special place in society:

in descending degree by degree, through the descent of the [heavenly] worlds . . . from His blessed Wisdom, ... the nefesh, ruach and neshama [divisions of the soul] of the ignorant and unworthy come into being. Nevertheless they remain bound and united with a wonderful and essential unity with their original essence and entity; namely the extension of the Chochmah Ila'ah (Supernal Wisdom), inasmuch as the nurture and life of the nefesh, ruach and neshama of the ignorant are drawn from the nefesh, ruach and neshama of the saints and sages, the heads of Israel in their generation. (ch. 2)

Respect for the tzaddik is not in itself problematic. What is troubling me at this point is the removal of free will from the equation. The soul descended from heaven, and its attributes are fixed in its descent. And, that is just the soul of Jew. The non-Jew fares even worse:

The souls of the nations of the world, however, emanate from the other, unclean kelipot [evil forces] which contain no good whatever, as it is written in Etz Chayim, Portal 49, ch. 3, that all the good that the nations do, is done from selfish motives. (ch. 1)**

So, Judaism (or Jewishness, or something like that) is an essential property of the individual from his ensoulment, and the only way the person could ever hope to be good for the sake of what is right. From my initial reading, then, it seems to me that what God created and called “good” is, in fact, pure evil. And, the basic ability to do good is denied to the majority of His creations, by His own actions. Troubling indeed.

* figuratively speaking (and, until they are satisfactorily resolved)
** Interestingly enough, the proof-text for the existence of the second soul, which only Jews have, is from Genesis, referring to Adam. Was Adam a Jew?

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Thing is, although Tanya is the "torah-Sheb'chtav" of Chaba"d phylosophy, it's not intrinsicly a philosophy book. Tanya is a work of kabbalah which is k'shmo ken hu, kabbalah. Happens to be it also works out al pi sechel. Now, as I just called it "torah-sheb'chtav", what follows naturaly is that it must be studied with its commentary, which is the chassidus of the subsequent Rabbeim. Now, I understand that you won't dedicate years of study to a philosophy which turned you off at first glance on the word of a yeshiva bachur who does his best to adhere to that school of thought. But, what you can do is read Lessons In Tanya by Rabbi Wineberg which is the Tanya and it incorporates the whole of chassidus in its commentary. It is very user-friendly and a pleasure to read. It is vital too.
You said that it seems unfair to classify Tzaddikim the way the Bal Hatanya does, etc. But in Chassidus, (and in Lessons In Tanya) it's explained that tzaddikim serve as luminaries, but they aren't the purpose of creation. G-d wants and desires our struggles and the world was created for people who struggle with evil and such. But for the asking there must be guides along the way, so Hashem creates Tzaddikim. But they SERVE the masses, as opposed to the masses serving them. The Beinoni is the ultimate person. The person who battles with evil is the hero of the Tanya.
As far as the science of the Tanya goes, it's known that Torah talks b'lashon bnei adam, and if a mashul is to be given from science it has to be from the science of its day, even if it isn't still thought of as true, because a mashul is just that, a mashul, for the reader to appreciate the nimshal, but in truth the mashul is for the reader to comprehend better. And maybe the mashalim work through hashgoch protis. For more updated mashalim explaining the tanya, see the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, heir of the dynasty of the Bal Ha'Tanya, and righteous sage and brilliant scientist.
so, there is so much room for development in Tanya, and even a Tzaddik can develope, not from imoperfect to perfect, but from one level to another, which refers do degrees in the intensity of the keddusha they appreciate, but they do not need to become perfect. again, there are millions upon millions of pages based on this small book, (hence the title torah she'b'chtav,) and I strongly suggest reading Lessons in Tanya, as opposed to Tanya, translated by Rabbi Mindel.
Excuse the poor grammar and spelling. 1)It's past my bedtime, 2)Im a yeshiva bachur. Let me know what you think.
I have no idea why that came up anonymously...
I've heard people claim that Adam HaRishon was a Jew. It disturbed me. But that view seems to be out there- I'm not sure on what textual basis.
Now, I understand that you won't dedicate years of study to a philosophy which turned you off at first glance

Dovid -- I do not want to give the impression that I was somehow "turned off" in the first few pages, which amount to an introduction. I was "troubled." These are two very different things. As I said in my post, I don't expect all questions to be answered and all concepts to be explained instantaneously. I do *expect* that some of my initial questions will be answered in later chapters and I do intend to continue reading.

And, I'm very glad that it is acceptable for the science used in Tanya to be understood allegorically within Chabad. I am willing to do that as well, hence I considered it to be one of the least important first-glance issues.

On which version/translation/interpretation of Tanya to read: There is always something of a balance between reading a sefer and reading it filtered through someone else (attempt at "literal" translation) and reading it filtered through someone else with the addition of later ideas (translation-commentary). The same issue comes up even in books with much simpler peshat, like Tanach (eg, Torah, or Torah+Rashi?). My preference on a first-pass is to keep as close as possible to an original form (in this case, that's a "literal" translation+occasionally looking at the original). That means that I might come up with a different-than-common understanding.

Truthfully, the only reason, though, I'm reading this version is because it was in the library (and, yes, I know about Lessons in Tanya online, but, it's inaccessible over Shabbat).
OK, read on my friend, and keep us posted.
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