I have always been drawn to the teaching of the Rebbe of Kotzk. His approach was predicated upon uncompromising truth and intellectual independence.This allowed him to be fearless and never to succumb to societal pressures.
He knew that Judaism was so much deeper and more profound than the way it was perceived by the masses and bent by religious populism.
These essays, although not necessarily Kotzker in essence, are certainly Kotzk inspired.
089) THE BAAL HATANYA AND THE VILNA GAON - CHARGES AND COUNTER CHARGES:
[NOTE TO READER:
It is not the intention of this article to debate the virtues or otherwise of
Chassidim and Mitnagdim nor to attempt to adjudicate the intricacies of their
respective philosophies. Rather, the reader is requested to remain theologically
and emotionally neutral as we take a look at a fascinating historical exchange
involving claims and counter claims.]
As is well known, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797)
placed the new movement of Chassidism into cherem
(excommunication) and declared them to be heretics with whom no pious Jew
THE WRIT OF EXCOMMUNICATION
The following is an extract from the 1777
“As you know, new
people have appeared, unimagined by our forefathers...and they associate
amongst themselves and their ways are different from other children of Israel
in their liturgy...they behave in a crazed manner and say that their thoughts
wander in all worlds...And they belittle the study of Torah, and repeatedly
claim that one should not study much, nor regret one’s
transgressions...Therefore we have come to inform our brethren...and to sound
to them the voice of excommunication and banishment...until they repent
One of the main reasons for this may have been that the
Jewish world was just recovering from the aftermath of tremendous upheaval
following the debacle of the false messiah, Shabetai Tzvi (1626-1676) about a
century before. The Vilna Gaon was therefore highly suspicious of any new
He also had a number of philosophical issues with some of the
concepts discussed in the Tanya which had become a primary text of many of the
new followers of the Chassidic movement (particularly Chabad). Furthermore, the
Chassidic movement was rapidly spreading, and its opponents feared they might
soon outnumber the mainstream (which indeed they soon did).
He was further concerned that the Chassidic concept of ‘attachment to a rebbe’ was too close
to idolatry and that the movement which at first attracted the simple poorer
and uneducated masses, might degenerate and possibly de-intellectualize
THE VILNA GAON
THE ‘RETRACTION’ CLAIM:
Around 1796, someone falsely claiming to be the son of the
Vilna Gaon, wrote a letter declaring that his ‘father’ had a change of heart,
and had duly retracted his earlier ban and antagonistic sentiment against
HE COUNTER CLAIM:
When this became known to the Vilna Gaon, he responded with
a counter letter, which stated that it was not true and that the ban and status
quo remained in place.
THE SECOND CLAIM:
The authenticity as to whether or not this counter letter was
indeed written by the Vilna Gaon was in turn brought into question.
THE SECOND COUNTER
In 1797, the Vilna Gaon wrote another letter in which he
detailed some of the specific issues he had with the Chassidic movement. This
letter was then published and widely disseminated.
The Gaon wrote; “these
are your gods, Israel”
which is the biblical expression used to describe the idolatrous worshiping of
the golden calf – and he applied that directly to the Chassidim. This was a
clear charge of heresy levelled against Chassidim which quickly put paid to the
notion that he retracted his earlier antagonism.
The Gaon was referring specifically to the (now almost
universally accepted Chassidic) idea brought in the Tanya that even inanimate
objects such as rocks and such, have an element of G-d within them.
The Vilna Gaon was so opposed to this concept that he said that Chassidim
proclaim ‘every tree and rock to be a new
(and idolatrous) god of Israel’.
Not only was it a charge of heresy but it was also a charge
(Again, it is not my intention to debate the virtues or
otherwise of the popular – and beautiful -Chassidic concept of a bechinat nefesh or spark of G-dly spirituality to be found within all physical
phenomena. We are dealing here with the structure of the dispute - not the
structure of the philosophy.)
The Vilna Gaon continued unrelentingly; “These evil evildoers (i.e. the
Chassidim) have fabricated from their
hearts a new law and a new Torah. Their students who followed them have drunk
it and the name of Heaven has been profaned by their hand.”
THE (POLITE) RESPONSE
TO THE SECOND COUNTER CLAIM:
THE ALTER REBBE
Sometime later the Baal HaTanya (1745-1812)
responded with letter (which was first published in 1857) where he put forth
his views regarding the dispute with the Vilna Gaon. Interestingly, he
understood the Vilna Gaon’s theological objections, and wrote:
“This is how HaGaon
haChassid (respectfully referring to the Vilna Gaon) understands the (Kabbalistic)
concept of G-d ‘filling the universe’
– he understands (that Chassidim take)
it literally. And in the honourable one’s view this is absolute apikorsut
(a more polite form of heresy?) because
one is inferring that G-d is mamesh (truly) found in mundane objectsmamesh
(truly). And because of the honourable
one’s letter (referred to above) the (Chassidic) book was burned.
In his (the
Gaon’s) view these sayings (of G-d
‘filling’ the universe) have a hidden
(non literal) meaning referring to hashgacha
(mere Providence, i.e. G-d controls
the universe but does not literally fill
it with His Being.)
If only I could find
him and present my case to him...”
And the Baal haTanya goes on to say how
he received these teachings from the Zohar and Ari Zal and therefore they were,
in his view, authentic Torah teachings.
So here we have a theological cataclysmic parting of ways
between the Baal haTanya and the Vilna Gaon.
A HARSHER RESPONSE:
TEXT OF TANYA
In the second section of Tanya, however, it seems as if the
gloves had come off.
The Tanya says (referring now to the Tzimtzum concept and not the ‘filling’ of the universe); “...the error of some, who are wise in their own eyes, may G-d forgive them, who erred and
were mistaken in their study of the writings of the Ari Zal, and understood
the doctrine of Tzimtzum mentioned there literally - that the Holy One (literally) withdrew Himself and His essence from this
world (and inferred that) He only supervises
Who does the Baal haTanya refer to with his harsh words
‘wise men in their own eyes’? There is no way to know for sure, but he was most
probably referring to the Vilna Gaon.
This is borne out by the fact that this very passage was absent
(censored?) from every printed edition of Tanya before 1900. The first edition
of Tanya was published in Slavita in 1796.
This was around the time the letters between both antagonists were beginning to
circulate, which means that for just over a century this passage was omitted!
Many believe that by the beginning of the 1900’s, sufficient
time had passed since the great feud had erupted and that the storm had, by
then, run out of range.
WHO WAS ELUDING WHOM?
Generally it is understood that the Vilna Gaon refused to
meet with the Baal haTanya. But there is another take. According to the
previous Lubavitcher Rebbe;
“At that time he (the
Baal haTanya, also known as the Alter Rebbe) secretly visited Shklov, Minsk and
Vilna. The Alter Rebbe spent six weeks in Vilna during that secret mission. He
would wander from one beis hamedrash to another disguised as a visiting
But he refrained from engaging the Gaon in discussion, for fear he
would be recognized. He did, however, submit several questions to him through
two of his adherents. ‘I soon learned whom I was dealing with and just how
great his knowledge of the Torah was’, said the Alter Rebbe to his brother.”
So, certainly at some stage, it was the Baal haTanya who
avoided the Vilna Gaon and not the other way around - although we also know
that the Vilna Gaon refused to meet with the Baal haTanya as well.
Thankfully today, for the most part, the feud does not play
out as acutely as it did in earlier times.
Although there are still stark theological
differences, all parties seem quite able to remain accommodating and civil
towards each other.
In hindsight it seems as if Chassidism infused a sense of energy
and spirituality into the mainstream - and on the other hand the strenuous
opposition particularly by the Gaon, helped keep the movement within the
relative confines of the mainstream (which may have unwittingly contributed to
Sometimes even the wine of theology requires the fullness of
time for its fruits to ferment.
Also known as Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, and as the Gra (Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu).
This was a second excommunication which emanated from Vilna. The first was in
1777, which was taken so seriously that in Brody, for example, the
excommunication was announced at a public trade fair. The excommunication was
quite an unusual step taken by the Vilna Gaon, who rarely took part in public
affairs and generally shied away from public office.
The Vilna Gaon was also a kabbalist,
and also accepted the writing of much
of the Ari Zal - except that he believed the Ari Zal may have been somewhat
fallible and therefore did not accept everything in its entirety as received from him. The Gaon (according to the Baal
haTanya) did not believe that everything the Ari Zal wrote had been passed on
to him by Eliyahu the prophet, and that some of his views may have emanated
from his own mind.
Tanya II, 7 (83a) According to Chassidus,
the withdrawal of G-d (to ‘make space’ for physicality) as part of the Tzimtzum or Contraction process is not literal as nothing could exist were
G-dliness to be literally withdrawn.
However, according to the Vilna Gaon it is taken literally!
[The Rebbe of Kopyst (1830-1900), author of Magen Avot, wrote in a letter to Rabbi
Don Tumarkin; “This...subject of Tzimtzum...the
Chassidim did not take it literally, as opposed to ...the Gaon of Vilna.”]
Regarding ‘filling’ of the universe concept, Chassidim
take it somewhat metaphorically (bechinat
nefesh – an aspect of a G-dly
soul), whereas the Gaon understood that they took it completely literally - hence
his charge of idolatry because accordingly, G-d is now found ‘in every rock and
tree’. (Perhaps the Gaon felt this was too similar to the model of classical
idolatry where every rock and tree had its own god.)
According to Chabad tradition, the Baal haTanya together with Rabbi Menachem Mendel
Horodoker (also known as Vitebsk) were sent by the Mezticher Maggid to meet
with the Vilna Gaon, but he refused to see them. According to Brisk tradition
the Baal haTanya was accompanied by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.
Different observers give different reasons for the
Gaon’s refusal to meet: Some say he was afraid he might be influenced by the
holiness of the Baal haTanya. Others say he felt it a waste of time because of
their irreconcilable theological differences. And some say it was simply
because he considered then to be heretical.
(There is even a letter from the Baal haTanya to his
Chassidim in Vilna instructing them not to waste their time debating with the
followers of the Gaon, also because their differences were irreconcilable.)
Whatever the truth is, they did not meet. One cannot but wonder how (or if)
history may have changed had the two been able to have a face to face exchange.