The Long Shorter Way
Volume 2 , Issue 3 (Feb, 1989 | Adar I, 5749)
The Long Shorter Way: Discourses on Chasidic Thought, By Adin Steinsaltz. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1988. Edited and translated by Yehuda Hanegbi. 353 pp.
There can be little doubt that the ideas of the kabbalah and chasidism have yet to realize anything near their full potential impact on the vast majority of American Jews. While there has been an apparent resurgence of interest in concepts deriving from the kabbalah, as expressed, for example, in the near explosive popularity of the periodical Tikkun, this interest has, from a Jewish-mystical point of view, been quite superficial. Tikkun haolam (the restoration of the world) is indeed a pivotal, perhaps the pivotal notion in Lurianic Kabbalah. However, the magazine Tikkun, in taking the concept of tikkun haolam as its banner, has failed to explore this and other Jewish mystical concepts in any depth, and has instead satisfied itself with the equation of tikkun haolam with its own progressive political agenda.
The reasons for the relative lack of genuine understanding of Jewish mystical ideas are manifold. Tradition has it that there is a danger in the study of the kabbalah, and in the past, this study has either been neglected or reserved for a select few who, having reached the age of 35 or 40 and having become very well versed in the study of the revealed aspects of Torah, are deemed ready to understand its hidden, i.e., kabbalistic, aspects. As a result, very few of the classic kabbalistic works have been translated, and the English reading public has been forced to rely on presentations by secular scholars, notably Gershom Scholem, who miss the living, Godliness of these sources, and by ?occultists? such as Rabbi Phillip Berg, whose books are designed to appeal to individuals who are easily seduced by astrology, numerology and ?popular? mysticism.
The story is somewhat different with respect to chasidism. While basing nearly all of its fundamental concepts on the kabbalah, chasidism was primarily a populist-spiritual movement within Judaism. With one notable exception, the chasidic movement did not produce intellectual or philosophical works. The exception, is Chabad or Lubavitch chasidism. whose founder, Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, combined the spiritual and emotional passion of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the chasidic movement) with the intellectual and philosophical insight of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimonides) in producing the remarkable work, Tanya. While the Tanya exists in an annotated English translation, it is an extremely terse and condensed work which assumes an intimate knowledge of many Jewish texts and traditions with which today's reader may not be familiar. As such, it is difficult to read without the aid of a personal teacher or guide, and it is rarely studied outside of Chabad-Lubavitch circles.
The Tanya's basic purpose, is to take the fundamental mystical concepts of Lurianic Kabbalah, bring them down to earth and utilize them as a guide for the everyday life of the benoni, or intermediate man, one who is neither so righteous as to have completely conquered his physical desires nor so wicked, that he has let these desires conquer him. The author of the Tanya, in concentrating on the fundamental inner conflict of man, the conflict between values and instinct, is indeed a Freud before Freud, and many of Schneur Zalman's fundamental ideas are premonitory of important concepts in psychoanalysis, concepts such as sublimation, the subconscious self, the relationship between reason and emotion, and the value of oral confession, to name just a few.
Enter Adin Steinsaltz, universally acknowledged to be one of the Gadolim HaDor, one of the Torah Giants of our generation. Rabbi Steinsaltz has not only produced an acclaimed completely new edition of the Babylonian Talmud, but has in recent years written an extraordinary series of books which, firmly rooted in kabbalistic and chasidic thought, provide an exciting yet intellectually profound interpretation of Judaism for the modern age. The Strife of the Spirit, a collection of discourses written over the years on topics as diverse as ?Fate, Destiny and Free Will?, ?Worlds, Angels and Men?, ?Chasidism and Psychoanalysis?, and ?Religion in the State of Israel?, to name but a few of its 30 chapters, prov ides among other things, a unique entree into the application of kabbalistic and chasidic thought to the problems of modem man. The title chapter, for example, provides a brief, but cogent and convincing discourse on the fundamental chasidic idea: that inner conflict and struggle is essential to life, and that the individual's never ending attempt to confront and integrate his conflicting desires, commitments and values is the very foundation, not only of personal growth, but of religious experience and renewal as well.
The Longer Shorter Way is nothing short of the key to the wisdom of The Tanya, and it, in a sense, picks up where the Strife of the Spirit leaves off. For it details the way in which the individual, beleaguered by internal strife, can not only achieve religious renewal, but can actually be instrumental in redeeming exiled aspects of the infinite light of God Himself. Rabbi Steinsaltz's work is not so much a detailed commentary on The Tanya, as a series of meditations which highlight and expand upon themes in each of the 53 chapters of the ?Alter Rebbe's? work. Each of Rabbi Steinsaltz's 53 chapters is itself a self-contained essay. For example, in chapters one and two the basic internal conflict between the individual's vital and divine soul is explored: chapter six discusses the concept of kellipot nogah, those aspects of the material and secular world which, owing tothe fact that they are not forbidden by the Torah, can be elevated to the service of God; chapter ten reflects upon the rare individual, the tzaddik, whose Godly soul has gained a final dominance over his instinctual life; chapter fifteen speaks of the value of inner conflict; chapter twenty six reflects on the fact that knowledge of the divine is often gained through tragic experience, etc.
Rabbi Steinsaltz's work is more appreciative than critical, and one wishes at times that he would distance himself or qualify some of the Tanya's teachings; for example, the view that only Jews have a divine soul or that a man can be deemed wicked simply for indulging in forbidden thoughts. Yet such criticism would be alien to a work of this kind, one which seeks to make the very thoughts of the ?Baal Tanya? alive and comprehensible to the contemporary reader. Rabbi Steinsaltz writes from the standpoint of a contemporary rebbe. One almost gets the feeling in reading The Longer Shorter Way that Rabbi Schneur Zalman, himself, is speaking to us in the modern idiom. The doctrine of the Tanya is at once a very rigorous, and yet comforting and simple path, hence the book's title. Those who are not prepared for the rigor, might well remember a theme that runs through this and Rabbi Steinsaltz's earlier works: that Judaism is not an all or nothing affair: it matters less where one is in one's spiritual development than the direction in which one is going.