Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon:
The Tanya and the Gaon

The following is an excerpt from a letter written in 1789 by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi—the “Tanya,” as he came to be called—to his congregation. The “Tanya” was a leader of the Hasidic sect founded by the Baal Shem Tov (and, incidentally, the first Rabbi of the Lubovitcher dynasty which is currently established in New York). Hasidism was spreading rapidly and had aroused passionate opposition, particularly in Lithuania, a country dominated by the spiritual leadership of the great Gaon of Vilna. The Gaon was the most important scholar of his time—the title Gaon had been used for the heads of Babylonian academies—and was venerated by many as the ultimate religious authority. His uncompromising hatred of the Hasidim seems to have been based on his view that the Baal Shem Tov had propagated a pantheistic heresy in the book Gathering of Sayings by interpreting such Biblical phrases as “Who fills all the worlds” and “There is no place empty of Him” too literally. The Baal Shem’s book was burned in the streets of Vilna shortly before this letter was written.

The “Tanya” was in a particularly good position to answer the Gaon’s charges since he was not only a disciple of the Baal Shem but a great Talmudist in his own right. He took it upon himself to try to heal the breach between Hasidim and “Misnagdim” (“opponents”).

The letter, which describes the unsuccessful efforts made by the “Tanya” to engage the Gaon or his followers in a public dispute, gives some indication of the bitterness that rent Jewry for many years. In it the “Tanya” mentions that he met with violence in the community of Shklav—a violence, he implies, indirectly inspired by the Gaon. This was a serious charge, but the Gaon had declared in a public proclamation that “anyone touched by the fear of God is obligated to drive and pursue the Hasidim with all manner of persecution, wherever the hand of Israel reaches, for their iniquity is hidden in their sin, and they are more noxious to Israel than a boil. . . .”

The letter was translated from the original Hebrew, and somewhat condensed, by Herbert Weiner.

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My Beloved brothers and friends, Hasidim of Vilna, whose foundation is the Torah and the worship of God: may God give you eternal life.

There is indeed no greater commandment than that which enjoins us to establish peace in Israel. But what can we do that we have not yet done [to reach an agreement with our opponents]? All our efforts have come to nothing. Before God and Israel, we are guiltless.

I went to the house of the Gaon, the light of Israel, in the company of the late Rabbi Mendel Horasner. . . . We had sent word that we were coming to discuss his complaints against us, hoping to persuade him that they were unjustified. But when we arrived at the Gaon’s house, twice he shut the door in our face. The leading men of the city begged him to see us: “Rabbi,” they said, “their most famous Rabbi has come to debate with Your Honor. Defeat him and there will be harmony in Israel.” Yet he put them off. When they persisted, he left the city, nor did he return until we ourselves departed. To this the elders of Vilna can testify.

Soon after this incident, we made a journey to the community of Shklav, again hoping to engage in a discussion—and again we failed. Moreover, there were things done to us in Shklav that should not have been done: they broke their promise not to harm us. For when they realized there was no valid reply to our arguments, they were forced to resort to violence—and they justified their conduct by citing the words of the “great tree”—the pious Gaon—may God keep him.

In all fairness, we must not be too harsh in our judgment of the Gaon. The matter had been settled in his mind beyond any doubt: evidently, he based himself on the reports of witnesses whom he took to be reliable. A witness, however, “sees only with his eyes.” There is still not a single indication that the Gaon has changed his mind, or that he now suspects he may have been mistaken in his condemnation of us. If this is the case, why should I continue to make these vain efforts? . . .

You tell me that the book Gathering of Sayings was burned because it interprets the phrases, “Who fills all the worlds” and “There is no place empty of Him,” as literal descriptions. According to the Gaon, it is utter heresy to suggest that God actually exists in lower and unworthy things. But there is an inner, deeper meaning to such passages which the Gaon refuses to see. For example, the phrase “the whole world is full of His glory” affirms the existence of a Providence. Would that I were able to explain and present our opinions before the Gaon, to refute once and for all these complaints and philosophical charges, which, according to his pupils, he accepts—attempting to know God through the mind of man.

But if he should find it difficult to change the ways in which he has been raised from childhood, and if my words offend him, then let him at least have the humility (which must surely be an element of his greatness) to bring his indictment against us clearly and in writing. Let him sign the bill of grievances himself, and I shall come afterwards and express my thoughts, and reply to his charges and also sign it with my hand. Let these two letters be printed and sent to every qualified scholar throughout the world, and let them decide between us. Israel is still not widowed from her God, and there are still to be found many of sound judgment who are steeped in Torah and can reach a wise decision. Let us agree to submit our dispute to them and to accept the majority view. This is the only possible way to end the warfare in Israel, it is the only path to peace among us.

As for the burning of the above-mentioned book, let me caution you against arousing further controversy. It is not for you to fight the battle of the Baal Shem Tov. This is not the place, and this is not the way which God desires. Remember that though this burning may seem a new thing to you, it is really old. Who was greater in his generation than the Rambam [Maimonides], a man whose glory and holiness and piety were recognized in his native Spain while he still lived. Yet in distant lands where they did not know of him, and where they were blind to his greatness, they condemned him as a heretic and a desecrator of the holy Torah. They burned his books in the streets of the city on the authority of certain sages who, because of their limited learning and unsure grasp, were unable to understand what the Rambam had written on the laws of repentance. However, just as those days passed and along with them their hatred—“so truth shall spring up from the earth and all Israel shall know that Moses was with truth.” May it be soon and in our own days. Amen.

Shneur Zalman

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