Lithuanian Kabbalah Conference – Bar Ilan University – Chassidic Ethics vs. Misnagdic Ethics

By Avi Kallenbach

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the first conference organized by Bar Ilan University’s Moussaief Center for the Study of Kabbalah. The topic of the conference was Lithuanian Kabbalah. This was such an interesting topic because the title already raises questions. Lithuanian Kabbalah? As the first lecturer Raphael Shochet said “Aren’t Lithuanians those grumpy guys with glasses who learn Talmud all day?” Of course this assumption is not true. Andmany lectures went on to prove that Kabbalah was an important element of the Lithuanian Torah learning.

One of the most interesting lectures, in my opinion, was that of Shlomo Kasirer. He discussed two conceptions of man’s relationship to God the Misnagdic – (represented by the Mussar movement of Yisrael Salanter) and the Chassidic. These two conception in turn influence how the Misnagdim and Chassidim understand man’s relationship to another man. In other words one’s conception of man to God is similar to one’s conception of man to man. 

[In the picture below the two non-closed circles in God on the Chassidic side represent non-absolute identities as opposed to the full dark circles which represent absolute identities]

The Misnagdic conception of God believes in a complete separation between God and the world. God and man are two separate entities who “meet”, as it were without either one losing their individual identities. God is completely transcendent.Chassidim on the other hand tend to view God as encompassing the entire world. The separation between man and the world from God is merely an illusion, an illusion which can and should be overcome. Man strives to be nullified in the great light of God and lose his identity. “The soul of man… desires to be separate and leave the body and to cleave to its root and and source – to God the life of lives even though [the soul] will be nothing and will be nullified completely and will have nothing left of its original essence or identity” (Tanya Chapter 19)These two conceptions of man’s relationship to God also influence how the different schools understand ethical obligations between man and man!

We will just look at the attribute of humility.

Look at these two conceptions of humility:

Rav Yisroel Salanter:

“The commandment of humility is usually against reason, because one who realizes his deficiencies is not yet called humble, unless he realizes all the amazing qualities he has… and yet he forces his inclination, and goes against his reasoning [and tells himself] that he is nothing. Like Moshe Rabenu who was the most complete member of the human species and yet he saw himself as the worst of them all!” (כתבי רב ישראל סלאנטר, מהדורת פכטר, עמ’ 78)

Rabbi Shalom Dovber Shneirson:

“[Describing the proud man:] … Because of his feeling of “being” he does not leave room for the “other”, the “other” takes away from his existence and he cannot stand it! The main cause [of his pride] is his strong feeling of being which forces him to see the other as an opponent. However the side of holiness [the way of the humble man] is to annul himself completely… and thus leave room for the “other”. And “leaving room” means he accepts the “other” and becomes one with him.” (הרש”ב מאמר החלצו שנת רנ”ט)

In the Misnagdic world of separate identities (God and man) there are only two ways to relate to an other (man and man): I’m greater than you (Pride) or you are greater than me (Humility). However in the Chasidic world there is a third choice “I” does not exist at all and therefore there is no need for a comparison of who is greater than whom.

According to Salanter (above) a humble man is one who sees someone else as greater than him. The humble man is stuck in a paradox, if he knows he is greater than his friend then how can he be humble? Salanter answers that one must force oneself to think the irrational. The humble man finds the one area in which his friend is greater than him and forces himself to focus on that point and forget all the ways his friend is actually worse than him. This need to create an illogical and paradoxical contrast is part and parcel of the Salanterian conception of a duality in relationships between man and God and man and man. Man defines himself according to his meeting with the other (very Buber – like) and as a result of this he must define his humility as a relationship between him and the “other” leading to the above paradox.

Chassidut on the other hand equates humility with the understanding of one’s own “nothingness”. The humble man does not define himself or anybody else but actually reaches his humility by failing to define himself. Humility has nothing to do with comparison as per Salanter but rather sees himself as nothing at all. His humility derives from the realization that he is actually nothing. Ultimately the humble man engages in an “anti-contrast” where he realizes that he and the “other” are actually the same! This has to do with the Chassidic conception of God and man all ultimately being one.

Kasirer went on to use this paradigm to understand forgiveness and mercy. But that’s all for now.



Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

2 responses to “Lithuanian Kabbalah Conference – Bar Ilan University – Chassidic Ethics vs. Misnagdic Ethics

  1. Anonymous

    link to the lecture:

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