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Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School by Naftali Lowenthal by Professor Yoseph Udelson
Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School by Naftali Lowenthal

Volume 4 , Issue 1

Communicating the Infinite: the Emergence of the Habad School by Naftali Loewenthal

Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1990. Hard cover. 336 pp. Notes, Glossary, Bibliography and Index.

Habad Hasidism teaches that every communication act, from that of Divine revelation to the interpersonal to the self-reflective, consists of an essential dialectic of disclosure and concealment. Employing this schema heuristically, Naftali Loewenthal, in this important study, Communicating the Infinite, explores the origins of the Hasidic movement in general and the formation and self-definition of the distinctive Habad school within it.

According to this account, Hasidism originated with the Baal Shem Tov's endeavor to communicate the esoteric core of the mystic (i.e., ?theurgic?) experience to those well beyond the tiny elite of fellow mystics; this he accomplished by fashioning intellectual, ethical, and folk teachings as vessels capable of transmitting the effects and teachings of the esoteric to the mildly visionary, scholarly, and uneducated segments of the Jewish community while simultaneously concealing the esoteric contents of the intense theurgic experience. For each group the Baal Shem Tov and his successor, the Maggid of Mezeritch, employed a different vehicle of transmission, each vehicle retaining unaltered the essence of the teaching but augmenting the degree of concealment according to the receptivity of the target audience.

Following the death of the Mezeritcher Maggid, the unitary Hasidic movement separated into multiple Hasidic fellowships, generally geographically defined. In White Russia, leadership was eventually assumed by R. Shneur Zalman, founder of the Habad school. ncreasingly he communicated more openly and to ever wider audiences the esoteric core of Hasidism, his endeavors culminating in the publication in 1796 of his magnum opus. Likkutei Amarim-Tanya. In this work R. Shneur Zalman systematically presented the esoteric in a format intellectually comprehensible to members of the scholarly classes hitherto excluded from such matters except in very veiled fashion. Immediately, Habad's founder was assailed by several other Hasidic leaders for communicating what had previously been, and they insisted, must remain, concealed. But rather than desist, he intensified his efforts.

Toward the end of R. Shneur Zalman's leadership of Habad, a bitter dispute arose between his eldest son, R. Dov Ber, and his most prominent disciple, R. Aaron ben Moshe Halevi Horowitz. Following the death of the movement's founder, the two became leaders of rival Habad groups, R. Dov Ber settling in the townlet of Lubavitch and R. Aaron, in Staroselye. The competing Habad leaders advocated radically divergent interpretations of R. Shneur Zalman teachings, and it is with these rival interpretations, and particularly with that of R. Dov Ber, that Loewenthal's book is primarily concerned.

Between the teachings of Lubavitch and Staroselye there were three primary issues of contention: (1) whether bind , self-abnegation, is itself the primary goal of contemplation or only preparatory toward a more intense emotional enthusiasm experienced in Divine service; (whether an intellectualist contemplation that does not lead to emotional enthusiasm in Divine service has value in itself or not, and (3) whether in the quest for contemplative union with the Divine, finite human reason can reach beyond the Kabbalah's World of ilizitut or not. As corollaries of these issues, Loewenthal identifies several additional areas of dispute: (4) whether transmission of Hasidic authority and leadership are hereditary or not; (5) whether extensive use of anthropomorphic parables to make rationally comprehensible the Divine is justified or not; (6) whether Lurianic Kabbalah should be employed extensively to teach the esoteric or not; (7) whether Hasidic teachings should be disseminated as broadly as possible or constrained by some limitation; and (8) whether Divine service results in social activism or quietism.

As the Staroselye branch of Habad did not long survive the death of R. Aaron in 1828, R. Dov Ber's position on each issue has become the definitive Habad interpretation of R. Shneur Zalman's teachings: the ideology and social activism of the current Lubavitcher Rebbe are clearly traceable to positions espoused by R. Dov Ber. Nevertheless, for almost the last quarter century contention between the proponents of Lubavitch and Staroselye has arisen anew, this time among academic scholars of Hasidic thought. Beginning with Louis Jacobs' sympathetic study of R. Aaron in his 1966 Seeker of Unity and particularly with Rachel Elior's thorough analysis of his teachings in The Theory of Divinity of Hasidut Habad: Second Generation (1982, Hebrew only), interest in Staroselye doctrines has greatly increased. Communicating the Infinite is intended to provide the scholarly response of the Lubavitch school.

Loewenthal's achievement is truly remarkable. In fluent narrative style, he explicates the most complex, often recondite, teachings of R. Dov Ber in a fashion that, while directed to his fellow scholars, is readily accessible to the general reader. Through analysis of his many works, Loewenthal demonstrates convincingly that R. Dov Ber did indeed derive his doctrines directly from the published writings and public discourses of R. Shneur Zalman, elaborating them in a manner allowing for their more profound comprehension while simultaneously widening the scope of the audience capable of grasping them. The innovations he introduced in Lubavitch were therefore intended to facilitate the more effective communication of Habad ideology outward. Of particular explanatory importance is Loewenthal's persuasive argument that the fundamental distinction between Staroselye and Lubavitch was the differing emphases each school places on the distinction drawn by R. Shneur Zalman in Tanya, Part Two, between the concepts of the ?Higher Unity? (i.e., the Divine existence before which the real world is nullified) and ?Lower Unity? (i.e., the Divine existence as integrated into the real world).

The brilliance of Loewenthal's achievement is. unfortunately, marred by certain lacunae and distortions. Peculiarly, after a remarkable exposition of one of the central theoretical works in the polemics between Lubavitch and Staroselye, R. Dov Ber's Kuntres ha-Hitpa'alut (translated by Louis Jacobs as Tract of Ecstacy, 1963), Loewenthal offers no explanation for the curious fact that this work has never been published officially by Lubavitch. Equally peculiar is Loewenthal's rather cursory and attenuated discussion of differences between the two Habad schools concerning the issue of communication, the underlying motif of his entire study; possibly this is because R. Dov Ber's deep commitment to broadening the scope of communication is echoed by his Staroselye competitor's equal devotion to the same purpose, as R. Aaron's own works, and the scholarly studies of them, clearly indicate. Additionally puzzling is the silence Loewenthal brings to the very different metaphysical treatments of the existence of evil advanced by the rival schools, especially as R. Aaron's teaching on the subject is considered quite radical and innovative.

Most disappointing, however, is Loewenthal's penchant for reductionist presentation of views opposing those of Habad and Lubavitch. This is readily apparent in his treatment of the multifaceted controversies within the Hasidic camp concerning the teachings and activities of R. Shneur Zalman; Loewenthal presents these complex issues as merely a disagreement between the Habad Rebbe, whose views are treated extensively, and R. Avraham of Kalisk, whose views are briefly summarized, over the relative importance to be attached to ?knowledge? versus ?faith.? More serious is the reductionist treatment of R. Aaron's very subtle and intricate teachings, resulting in obfuscation of his teachings on such fundamental issues as the role of Mut in contemplation. However, in several instances, these weaknesses are symptomatic of grey areas requiring further scholarly study rather than irredeemable flaws or deliberate distortions.

In the final assessment, Communicating the Infinite is the most erudite and penetrating exposition of the fundamental teachings of the Habad-Lubavitch school of Hasidism available in English. It constitutes essential reading not only for scholarly investigators but also for all readers interested in grasping the ideational imperatives guiding this highly visible and influential movement within the Jewish world today.

Yoseph Udelson

Professor of History

Tennessee State University



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