Chapter One: The Rebbe-Chassid Relationship: A Fundamental Principle Of the Torah

Chapter One: The Rebbe-Chassid Relationship: A Fundamental Principle Of the Torah

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A chassid’s connection to his or her Rebbe is one of the most fundamental aspects of chassidic life. In the Jewish world at large, it is also one of the most misunderstood. Like many of the more spiritual concepts in Judaism, the role and function of a Rebbe has been largely cloaked in mystery, misinterpreted, or simply unknown.

So what exactly is a Rebbe? Is he a tzaddik (a completely righteous person)? A Torah genius? Is he a leader who inspires, guides, teaches, and counsels his followers in matters of personal and religious life?

A Rebbe is all of the above. But no matter how many lofty qualities and superlatives you attribute to a Rebbe, he is much more than that. A Rebbe is someone whose entire being is permeated with G‑dliness; one of the few people whom G‑d has “planted in each generation” to give the Jewish people a window into depths of spirituality they could not possibly perceive, understand, or sense on their own.

A Rebbe has no worldly desires other than connecting to G‑d, following the laws of the Torah and guiding others to do the same. This unique dimension is what differentiates him from common Torah scholars and leaders.

There are many different groups of chassidim, each with their own unique customs and way of life. Nevertheless, common to all chassidic groups1 is the connection between the chassidim and their Rebbe.

Fearing comparisons to other religions, Jews, out of a lack of knowledge, have often rejected and even publicly condemned some of the most basic concepts of their own tradition. If Jews have a direct connection to G‑d, say some, how can a Jew or a Jewish group place so much importance on a human being of flesh and blood?

The lack of understanding of the Rebbe-chassid relationship and the role of a Rebbe in the overall scheme of Judaism can easily lead to misconceptions. The purpose of this book will be to address these misconceptions and provide a clear and enlightening explanation of the historical origins and ongoing importance of a Rebbe in Jewish life and his connection with his followers.

The Origins of the Chassidic Movement

The spiritual dimension of Judaism known as Chassidism2 existed since the beginning of time but was kept a guarded secret, passed down from tzaddik to tzaddik in each generation. It was only revealed to the masses by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, known as the Baal Shem Tov,3 “the Master of the Good Name,” in the early 1700s, when dire circumstances among the Jewish people necessitated the revelation of its teachings.4

Many Jewish groups rose up in fierce opposition against the chassidic movement, claiming that it added new aspects and practices to Judaism — a clear violation of Torah law. Ignorant of the truth and validity of chassidic philosophy, and not wanting to repeat the calamities that accompanied the false messiah, Shabtai Tzvi, these Jewish groups committed themselves to eradicating the movement. It took nearly a century to satisfy the questions and concerns posed by other Jewish groups regarding the legitimacy of Chassidism. Through systematic and intellectual exposition, chassidic Rebbes and their followers successfully demonstrated how every aspect of Chassidism is firmly rooted in Torah — whether the Written Torah, Midrash, Oral Torah, or the Zohar — and how chassidic teachings are not additions to, but deeper dimensions of, already existing Torah lore.

Everything in Chassidism has its source in Torah. The only “new” thing that the Baal Shem Tov introduced was that previously unstressed details and aspects of the Torah way of life were brought to the fore and given more attention.

An analogy can be drawn from the medical field. More than a century ago, the practice of medicine was primarily performed by general practitioners. Medical specialty did not exist; medicine was practiced for the most part by a family practitioner who treated everything. He treated the heart. He treated the brain. He treated the bones. He delivered babies. He performed surgery.

The concept of medical specialization emerged in the 19th century, when certain areas of medicine were singled out for more focused study. Eventually, a doctor would choose a certain field such as cardiology, gastroenterology, or neurology on which to concentrate. But what happened when a doctor chose a field of specialty? Did all of his general medical knowledge become obsolete or had the concept of healing been fundamentally altered? Of course not. He simply took his previous knowledge and focused more deeply on one specific area. In so doing, he enhanced and brought more efficiency to that particular field.

The same is true of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. Although everything that the Baal Shem Tov “introduced” and taught is found in Torah and is part of the Torah way of life, his chassidic philosophy deepened and amplified each of its components. Firmly grounded in the “general practice” of Judaism, chassidic philosophy offered “specialization” in those aspects of Jewish life that needed to be strengthened in order to heal and awaken the Baal Shem Tov’s ailing generation and the generations that followed.

The same concept applies to the role of a Rebbe in Jewish life. The relationship of the Jewish people with their Rebbe is nothing new; it has always existed in Torah starting with the first Rebbe, Moses,5 and has always been an essential part of the Torah way of life.6 What the Baal Shem Tov taught was that this aspect of Jewish life would need to be rekindled in order to revive and strengthen Jewish practice in times of devastating hardship. Whether to stay firm in their faith during the pogroms of Europe or the 21st century’s floodgates of assimilation, certain aspects of Torah life would need to be revived to ensure Judaism’s survival.

Before explaining the role of a Rebbe in chassidic life, let’s look at the following examples which illustrate how other aspects of chassidic life — aspects that may have erroneously been seen as innovations — have their source in Torah and Torah practice.

Simchah

A common factor in all chassidic groups, being b’simchah (happy) was one of the fundamental concepts taught by the Baal Shem Tov. So basic is happiness to chassidic life that before the chassidic people were called chassidim, one of their transitory names was the Yiddish term “de freilicha — the happy ones.”

Opponents to the chassidic movement would erroneously condemn simchah in one’s G‑dly practice as negative or frivolous, yet the importance of joy in one’s Divine service was not an innovation of the Baal Shem Tov — it’s an essential part of Torah. As the verse in the Book of Psalms7 states: “Ivdu es Hashem b’simchah” — “You should serve G‑d with joy.” And the Talmud states8 that “Ein haShechinah shoreh ela mitoch simchah” — “G‑d’s presence will only dwell upon a person when he is in a state of joy.” As such, a prophet, for example, was not able to receive prophecy unless he was in a state of joy. If he were morose or depressed, G‑d’s presence would not dwell upon him.

One of the most important aspects of the Shalosh Regalim — the three main Jewish holidays of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos — is to be in a state of joy.9 There are even certain Torah laws connected to expressing and stimulating joy, and special practices which demonstrate appropriate aspects of joy for each of the holidays.

Even though joy is the general mood of these holidays, the essence of one of the holidays, Sukkos, is joy itself. In the special holiday prayers, Sukkos is called z’man simchaseinu (the time of our joy). In the times of the Holy Temple (Beis HaMikdash) in Jerusalem, there was so much singing, dancing and rejoicing during the holiday of Sukkos and the intermediate nights of Simchas Beis HaSho’evah, that if a person did not experience that joy it was considered as if he never experienced real joy in his life.

Clearly, then, joy has always been part of the Torah and an important aspect of the Jewish way of life. What the Baal Shem Tov revealed was that his times necessitated an increased emphasis and focus on this particular area of Torah practice in greater measure than before.

Song

Another heightened aspect of chassidic life is serving G‑d through song. Song is so intrinsic to the chassidic way of life that someone well-versed in chassidic melodies can actually hear a particular melody and identify from which chassidic group it originated.

Critics of Chassidism called the use of song as a vehicle for inspiration a waste of time, claiming that inspiration can only be stimulated through learning Torah.

But the idea of serving G‑d through song is hardly new. After the Jews were miraculously saved at the Splitting of the Sea, the first thing the Torah records is the Song of Moses and the Song of his sister Miriam in praise of G‑d.

One of the main services performed in the Beis HaMikdash by the Levites was praising G‑d through song. Regardless of whether they sang or played instruments, an integral part of their holy service there was to fill the Holy Temple with music. Often attributed to an innovation of Chassidism, song has always played a role in Jewish practice. The Baal Shem Tov merely recognized the need to bring this aspect of Torah life to the forefront.

Prayer

An emphasis on deep and heartfelt prayer is another practice that characterizes the chassidic movement.

The Talmud10 discusses certain individuals from early Talmudic times who would spend up to nine hours a day on prayer. For each of the three daily prayers, they would prepare an hour before prayer, spend an hour on the actual prayer, and then take an hour to absorb and internalize what they gained from each experience, totaling nine hours of daily prayer.11

Even though these people lived approximately 1,800 years before the chassidic movement, they were called chassidim, so when the Baal Shem Tov instituted a revival of lengthy prayer, his adherents also became referred to as chassidim.

When the time came for Reb Schneur Zalman of Liadi,12 the great Torah genius and future first Rebbe of Chabad, to decide where to further his studies, he considered two opportunities. Of the two Torah centers in the world at that time, one emphasized Torah study and one emphasized prayer. In Vilna, whose central figure was the Vilna Gaon, Reb Schneur Zalman would be in the court of one of the greatest Torah masters of all time. In the city of Mezritch, he would focus on the service of prayer under the great chassidic master, the Maggid of Mezritch.13

In weighing his choice, he reasoned, “I have already had a lot of training in how to study Torah, but not a lot of training in how to pray.” And so he chose Mezritch.14 In this defining moment, the chassidic movement gained its most central figure.15

The emphasis on lengthy and heartfelt prayer was not an innovation of the chassidic movement. On the contrary, praying at length was a practice that took on great importance at various times throughout Jewish history. If there was an innovation, it was that the Baal Shem Tov recognized that extra focus on the service of prayer was a necessary ingredient in the overall service of all the Jews in our times — regardless of Torah scholarship and level of observance — and not just the practice of an elite few.

Jewish Mysticism

The mystical teachings of the Torah — the Zohar, the writings of the AriZal,16 and other Kabbalistic texts — are an authentic and essential part of the Torah. Many people were confused and disturbed when the Baal Shem Tov began teaching these secrets of Torah to the masses. Some questioned the legitimacy of the Kabbalah and mystical teachings in general, and some, recognizing their authenticity, objected to making them accessible to simple people.

Regarding their legitimacy, a bit of background is in order. Kabbalah and the teachings of Jewish mysticism are referred to as nistar. Nistar means “hidden,” and these teachings are considered the hidden dimensions of Torah. The revealed part of the Torah17 is called nigleh which means “revealed.”

A very great scholar known as the Chasam Sofer once said, “When a person argues b’nigleh against nistar, this is an indication that b’nistar he argues against nigleh,” meaning, that when a person openly (b’nigleh) denies the teachings of the hidden part of Torah (nistar), it’s an indication that in secret (in his heart — b’nistar), he also denies the teachings of the revealed part of Torah (nigleh), because the hidden and the revealed parts of Torah are all one.

The mystical teachings of Torah were always studied by the greatest Torah scholars and sages throughout Jewish history, but even among this elite group, there were only a select few in each generation who had access to this wisdom. In later times, revealing the hidden secrets of the Torah (i.e., Kabbalah) to the public — in this case, to a much broader group of Torah scholars — came about two hundred years before the Baal Shem Tov through the AriZal, when he declared, “It is a mitzvah to reveal [the wisdom of the Kabbalah].”

With his holy vision, the Baal Shem Tov recognized the need to take this a step further and make these mystical teachings available to the masses.

Going Beyond the Letter of the Law

One last example of a basic principle in chassidic life is the idea of going “beyond the letter of the law” in Torah study and mitzvah observance.

Every practicing Jew follows halachah — the things required of a Jew according to Torah law. A person, though, can go beyond the call of duty, doing more than what is required. The Talmud18 calls such a person a chassid, and because the chassidic movement adopts going beyond the letter of the law as a way of life, this is another reason why its adherents are called chassidim.

In a well-known story, a certain chassid once related how he himself became a chassid as a result of experiencing this practice of going beyond the letter of the law. He was a Rabbi in a small shtetl and was totally disassociated with everything outside of the shtetl, including the raging conflict between the chassidic movement and its opponents.

At that point, the conflict was so intense that the opponents of Chassidism arranged to have the Alter Rebbe, the first Rebbe of Chabad,19 accused of high treason and arrested by the Russian government. Through this arrest they hoped he would be executed, G‑d forbid, and this would take care of the chassidic movement once and for all.

After serving 53 days in jail, he was eventually freed,20 but during his jail term, several of his followers were also arrested. When two of these chassidim, the great chassidic scholars Reb Meir Raphaels and Reb Boruch Mordechai of Babroisk, were en route to jail, they were scheduled to pass through the shtetl in which the Rabbi in this story lived.

Several of the residents came to him and said, “The head of the community told us that two chassidim would soon be passing through this town and when they do, we should all stand at the corner where their carriage stops and throw rocks at them. As our Rabbi, we are asking you if we have permission to do that.” Needless to say, the Rabbi was shocked.

“Throwing stones at other Jews?! Why?”

“Because we were told that they are apikorsim (nonbelievers),” they answered.

“Really?!” he said. “Explain this to me. Do they not put on tefillin?”

“No,” they said. “They put on two pairs of tefillin.”

“Well then tell me, do they eat chometz21 on Pesach?”

“No!” they replied. “They don’t even let the matzah get wet. They suspect that if the matzah were to get wet, there might be a small chance that the dough would become chometz.”

“So, do they not wear tzitzis?”

“No! They wear tzitzis that hang down to the ground!”

“Well, then, they don’t daven? They don’t pray?”

“Actually, they spend hours a day in prayer.”

This went on and on. Finally the Rabbi said to them, “These are very peculiar nonbelievers indeed. You tell me that not only do they perform all the mitzvos, but they do more than is required. I have to see this for myself!”

The Rabbi went down to the square and saw these two chassidim with his own eyes, explaining later, “Looking at their faces, I saw such a brilliance and such a spiritual shine, I knew it was impossible for these people not to be G‑dly, spiritual people. I began to do some research, and once I began to understand what Chassidism was all about, I was so impressed that I myself became a chassid.”

To this day, chassidim are known throughout the world as “ultra” Orthodox Jews, a reference to their going beyond the letter of the law. But this aspect of chassidic life is also nothing new. Throughout Jewish history, there was always a select group of people who expressed their love for G‑d with a heightened observance of the mitzvos. The Baal Shem Tov merely emphasized this mode of practice in Jewish life and brought it to the masses.

Reviving the Soul of Judaism

What was the Baal Shem Tov’s goal in bringing the chassidic movement to the Jewish public at large? Did he simply encourage the observance of a random collection of practices or was there some common thread connecting them all that contributed to an overall vision?

To preface, a well-known analogy22 is given to describe the nature of the Baal Shem Tov’s mission and what it was meant to accomplish. It begins with the scenario of a person who has just fainted. One of the ways to revive him is by calling him by his own name. So, too, the Jews in the times of the Baal Shem Tov were in a spiritual faint, and G‑d called us with our name, “[the people of] Yisrael.” How did He do that? By sending us Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, in order to wake us up to spiritual consciousness.

Now the person who has fainted has lost consciousness, but his body is very much alive. In the analogue, the body represents the body of Torah (the study and practice of the revealed teachings of the Torah) which was very much alive in those days, while the loss of consciousness, the faint, represents the state of the soul, the spirituality, in Torah observance. The Baal Shem Tov’s mission revolved around maintaining a functioning body while reviving a weakened and depressed soul.

In all physical forms of life, there is a body and a soul. In a human being, for example, there are certain things that reinforce and strengthen the body, like food, sleep and exercise. There are other kinds of activities — like developing a positive attitude, refining one’s emotions, softening one’s ego, and giving of oneself to others — that strengthen and reinforce the soul; the inner dimensions of a person.

For all the various activities, there are different kinds of masters. For strengthening the body there are professionals such as doctors, nutritionists and exercise coaches whose specialty is to work with the mechanics of the body. There are other people, like teachers and counselors, whose specialty is to help strengthen the inner dimensions of a person such as developing healthy emotional traits and refining one’s character.23

The same pattern operates within Judaism. There is a body of Judaism which consists of the physical, technical aspects of the Jewish way of life, such as what we are obligated to do and what we are prohibited from doing, along with the obligation to gain general knowledge in Torah.

Then there is the soul, or life-force, of Judaism that nurtures and strengthens Jewish practice from within. The soul of Judaism is revealed by emphasizing its emotional aspects such as our love and awe of G‑d, developing our inner, G‑dly qualities, and strengthening our faith and belief in Him. The common thread tying all the different aspects of chassidic life together is their integral role in strengthening the soul of Judaism.

Each of the following elements (mentioned previously) assists a person in accessing the soul of Judaism by developing and strengthening his inner qualities and emotions:

Prayer. While Torah study is connected to the mind (body), prayer is connected to the heart (soul). We learn this from the Talmud,24 which states: “What is the source in the Torah for the commandment to pray? The verse [in the Shema]: ‘You should serve G‑d with all your heart’ — that is prayer.”25 The way to develop a stronger emotional bond with G‑d is by meditating on G‑d’s greatness and our relationship with Him during prayer, and this in turn stimulates our awe and love for Him.

Song. In the realm of holiness, there are songs26 that stimulate joy, songs that stimulate love for G‑d, and songs that express the soul’s yearning to be close to G‑d. Regardless, all the songs are geared towards one thing — to stimulate the emotions and help us connect to G‑d with our hearts.

Joy. Joy lifts our spirits and “opens the channel” to allow our feelings and our love for G‑d to develop and flourish. Achieving this enables us to connect to G‑d on the deepest levels. The opposite of joy, on the other hand, is not neutral. It makes us feel depressed or stagnant, and causes us to feel separate from G‑d.

Jewish Mysticism. The difference between the revealed part of Torah and the mystical part of Torah is that the former deals with the technical aspects — the “do’s and don’ts” — of Jewish life, while the latter deals with understanding G‑d and His universe: how He created the physical and spiritual worlds, the spiritual purpose behind the mitzvos, and the spirituality of the soul. By studying the mystical part of Torah, we gain a better understanding of our relationship with G‑d and His great kindnesses to us, and this strengthens and reinforces our belief in, and our love and awe for Him.

Going Beyond the Letter of the Law. Why would anyone want to go beyond the letter of the law? Aren’t there enough rules to follow in Judaism? Are people just trying to make themselves miserable?

The answer to these questions is very simple. If a person observes the laws of Torah just to fill an obligation, then he or she will do exactly what’s required and stop there. But if a person serves G‑d out of strong feelings of love for Him, then one doesn’t make calculations. On the contrary, a person will be driven to do as much as possible — more than what is required — for G‑d.

We see a parallel in the physical realm in the relationship between a husband and wife. Suppose a husband and wife have respect, but no real feelings of love, for each other. The husband will do everything he is responsible to do and the wife will do everything she is responsible to do but neither will go beyond their obligations. On the other hand, two people in a relationship that is full of love will go way beyond what is required of them. In such a case, one’s satisfaction and joy in the relationship will be dependent on doing more and more for the other.27

The same is true with our relationship to G‑d. If a person has a passionate fire burning within him towards G‑d, he will strive to do more and more to get closer to Him. Rather than feeling burdened by his obligations to G‑d, doing more than what is required will only increase his pleasure and sense of satisfaction.

So to revitalize the spirit of Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov sought to develop and strengthen its soul, and that is why he taught and emphasized those areas of Jewish practice that have the ability to accomplish that.

The Rebbe-Chassid Relationship. Now we are in a better position to address the questions people raise regarding the concept of a Rebbe.

Some people may ask, “I can understand showing respect to a tzaddik, a Rebbe, but aren’t people getting a little out of hand? The level of admiration people give him is what you would give to G‑d, not to a person of flesh and blood.”

The response to this, once again, is that the chassidic way of life introduced nothing new to Judaism. As with the other elements of Chassidism, the Baal Shem Tov recognized that reviving the intrinsic connection of the Jewish people with a Rebbe would not only heighten their awareness and consciousness of G‑d’s presence in the world and deepen their emotional connection to Him, it would hurtle them toward the realization of their destiny — the redemption of the Jewish nation with Moshiach.

The origin of the whole concept of a Rebbe and where it is found in Torah will be explained in more detail in the next chapter.

Footnotes
1.
Some of the more well-known chassidic groups today include Lubavitch (Chabad), Belz, Bobov, Breslov, Satmar, and Ger.
2.
Chassidus in Hebrew.
3.
Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer (1698-1760), founder of the chassidic movement. Born in the Ukraine, Rabbi Yisrael was orphaned at a young age and learned the secrets of Torah from hidden tzaddikim as well as the prophet Achiyah HaShiloni. At the age of 36, he revealed his teachings to the masses, thus beginning the chassidic movement.
4.
For more on this, see the section entitled “Reviving the Soul of Judaism” later in this chapter.
5.
The common Hebrew name for Moses is Moshe Rabbeinu, which is translated as Moshe our Rebbe (i.e., Teacher).
6.
The Midrash tells us that in every generation there is someone like Moses (Bereishis Rabbah 56:7).
7.
Psalm 100:2.
8.
Shabbos 30b. See also Tanya, ch. 31.
9.
See Chagigah 6a.
10.
Berachos 32b.
11.
The Talmud asks, if they spent so much time on prayer, when did they have time to study Torah or accomplish anything else? The Talmud answers that because they were such righteous people and they prayed so much, there was a special blessing in their study. In the merit of their prayers, they were able to accomplish in the little available time they had the same amount of Torah study that took others all day.
12.
Later referred to as the “Alter Rebbe.”
14.
Sefer HaSichos, 5745 (Talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1985; Kehot Publication Society., Brooklyn, NY), p. 132.
15.
By establishing Mezritch as a center whose main emphasis was prayer, Reb Schneur Zalman (the Alter Rebbe) publicly identified the idea of prayer as being the major focal point of the chassidic way of life.
16.
The AriZal (translated as “ ‘The Lion,’ of blessed memory,” from an acronym of his name “The Ashekanic Rabbi Isaac”) is the name commonly used for Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), a Jewish mystic in the Israeli town of Safed. The foremost authority on the Kabbalah since Reb Shimon bar Yochai, he is perhaps most well known for his magnum opus Etz Chayim, a compilation of his Kabbalistic teachings penned by Rabbi Chaim Vital.
17.
Consisting of Chumash (the Five Books of Moses), Navi (Prophets), Kesuvim (Writings), Midrash, Talmud, Halachah (Torah Law) and all the accompanying commentaries.
18.
Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) 6:1; see the commentaries of Rashi and Rambam on this mishnah.
19.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812). A spiritual grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and a prominent disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, the Alter Rebbe established the branch of the chassidic movement known as Chabad, known for its emphasis on spiritual refinement through the intellectual understanding of G‑dliness and through prayer.
20.
See The Arrest and Liberation of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, A. C. Glitzenstein (in English translation by Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Kehot Publication Society, 770 Eastern Pkwy, Brooklyn, NY, 1964).
21.
Wheat products which are made with leavening, prohibited on Pesach.
22.
Kesser Shem Tov, an anthology of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, (Kehot Publishing Company, Brooklyn, NY, 2004), p. 496.
23.
The role of a Rebbe as “master of the soul” will be discussed later in the chapter and throughout this book.
24.
Taanis 2a.
25.
Rashi on Deuteronomy 11:13.
26.
In this context, “songs” refers to niggunim, holy melodies composed and sung by various chassidic masters and their chassidim in order to tap into the higher realms of G‑dliness that are beyond words.
27.
Tanya, ch. 39.
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