Chussidic Intellectualism

“The misnagdim argue that Torah study is a Jew’s main devotion. The chussidim argue that prayer is the main devotion. But I say, ‘pray and study and pray’!”     -R. Nachman of Breslev

Due to the argument between misnagdim and chussidim, a caricature emerged painting chussidim as Jews who only attempt to commune with the Divine through emotion. This unfortunate description is one of the barriers that prevent those of us with more litvish backgrounds from accessing chussidus. I am here today to assure you that indeed Chussdim do value the brain.

While there are many chussidic passages describing the value of the intellect, I particularly enjoy the first chapter of Likutei Moharan. Ironically, Breslev chussidus is actually anti-intellectual. R. Nachman discouraged his students from studying “secular” books (although he himself seems to have done so). However, despite R. Nachman’s public animosity towards modern thought, Likutei Moharan is filled with intellectually engaging and challenging concepts (including platonic references!). This greatly emphasizes the importance of opening ourselves to ideas coming from divergent cultures.

(Quick tangent, the chapter is filled with mystical concepts that I will try to not go into. I will do my best to explain those parts which are necessary and to jump around other theosophic points. I will instead present singular sentences and try to explain them to the best of my ability. That said, the idea is incomplete without these references. )

Know by means of the torah all prayers and requests are accepted.  This is the beginning of the piece and it clearly presents R. Nachman’s position, Torah infuses our prayers with grace, or chein (remember this word, spelled חן!), making them wanted in the eyes of Gd.  In other words, torah study is the battery you put into the gameboy of prayer.

The Jew must always look at the ‘intelligence’ of everything and attach himself to the ‘intelligence’ and ‘wisdom’ (Chochma) that is in everything so that the ‘intellegence’ may enlighten him. R. Nachman encourages study as a way to see Gd in all things. As we will see, he specifically chooses ‘wisdom’ to refer to the sfirot of chochma and binah two of the sfirot that are closest to Gd. Loosely, they represent the divine thought behind creation.

This is the concept of ‘sun’, because intelligence shines for him in all his ways…and this is the concept of the letter ‘chet’, or chiyut, because wisdom and intelligence is the life-force of everything. It is here that R. Nachman gloriously alludes to the famous platonic cave. To walk in this world without intelligence is no different than to walk in the dark. To the unlearned the world is a dead place filled with shadows that can’t possibly be understood. This in turn effects one’s ability to pray.

However, because the light of intelligence is very great, it is impossible to attain it except with the concept of the letter ‘nun’ which is the concept of Malchut… This is also the concept of the moon, for the moon has no light of its own only that which it receives from the sun. This sentence is key to R. Nachman’s philosophy. Malchut is the lowest of the sphirot making it farthest from the divine light. R. Nachman is claiming that it is impossible to fully understand our world or the Divine (as represented by wisdom/the sun/the letter chet). Sometimes, we must move down from the sphirot of Chochma and Bina, representing the intellect, to the sphira of Malchut, representing faith. While the skeptic must remain skeptical the Jew must trust that there is a higher power behind the movement of things that he does not understand. This difficult task requires a high level of humility. We must periodically cease to be active thinkers (the sun) and make ourselves passive observers (the moon). Kierkegaard famously mocked Aquinas for praying to uncover a proof of G-d, rather than simply accepting the fact that he believed in G-d.

The main reason that requests are not granted are that they lack chein and therefore don’t enter into the heart of the person of who the request is being made…but through torah study, the ‘chet’ and the ‘nun’ are combined to create cheinThrough study, the ‘chet’ representing knowledge and the ‘nun’ representing faith are combined to give the individual’s prayers a sense of ‘chein’, or grace.  I believe strongly in this concept. Think about studying economics. When you start learning theory, you understand almost nothing. Eventually, you advance to the point where you start studying the calculus behind the theory. You gain wisdom (chet) and rather than assuming that everything which you don’t yet understand is false you trust that it will make sense (nun) in the future and even if it doesn’t that economics is still a valid social science. Then you pray to Adam Smith that he grant you a shidduch.

This lesson teaches that torah study (both traditional and secular) helps us to understand and to come closer to Gd, even to imitate Him. However, we must also be humble, understanding our limitations. Aspects of torah that we don’t understand may in fact make sense. It is here that we must turn to faith to overcome our doubt. Furthermore, there must be a combination of the intellectual with the spiritual to fully connect to Gd. Prayer without torah study will be ineffective while torah study without prayer will leave you unfulfilled. Both Chochma and Malchut must be synthesized.

Just like the GR”A had niggunim (its true!), chussidim have systematic expressions of their philosophy.

Until next week (who knows? Any suggestions?) raise a glass and sing a niggun.



Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

3 responses to “Chussidic Intellectualism

  1. Ayal

    Adam Smith wouldn’t believe in shidduchim. He believes in the free market…

  2. I think that Chassidim can be described as anti-intellectual it in the sense of not studying Talmudic and Kabbalistic texts with the same *scholastic* rigor as Litvish counterparts. I think the idea of anti-intellectualism is not just a caricature, it comes from the Besht who was an anti-intellectual in this sense. The Besht was a charismatic not a scholar. He thus became a new type of role model one who was admired not for his intellectualism but rather for his charismatic message.

    (Of course many of the students and students of the students of the Besht were much more intellectual than him and went on to write works on Halacha and Kabbalah… )

    The statements you bring from Rabbi Nachman are intelligent and philosophical but I don’t know if they would fit the Litvish conception of what intellectualism is…

    -Avi K

  3. avibieler

    You sort of put my answer in your comment regarding the Beshts students (some of whom came from litvish yeshivas and some of whom wrote litvishy commentaries on the gemara like the sfas emes). I would add thats its very difficult to make any definitive statements about the besht due to the lack of source material (to my knowledge). Im also not sure that it matters. Most chussidic source material doesn’t come from the Besht. Furthermore, is pilpul intellectually rigorous? The Brisk method is, but in my opinion VERY few people actually come close to really learning like that. Meanwhile, the alter rebbe wrote a full system of halacha (the chabad shulchan aruch). I think it would be difficult to argue that the talmudic learning in all chussidic yeshivas was less rigorous although certainly that is the case in some of them.

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