Is the Lubavitch book Tanya really racist?
Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue has dropped a course on the Tanya, the 18th-century Lubavitch work, after congregants’ protests. One of them, DanRickman, puts the objectors’ view; below, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet defends the book’s approach to non-Jews
THE DEBATE about the Tanya is about values rather than freedom of speech, as some have contended. The Hebrew Bible and classical rabbinic sources contain texts which, for example, command us to look after the stranger within our midst as we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. These sources inspire and provide a basis for living in today’s society.
In contrast, other texts have, in common with almost all classical literature, the completely opposite viewpoint and clash with modern sensibilities.
For example, Rabbi Akiva sees the verse “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, as a fundamental principle in the Torah; however he considers that it applies only to Jews. Ben-Azzai responds that a greater principle in the Torah is that the whole of mankind is made in God’s image, in other words the brotherhood of man.
The debate around the Tanya is really part of a much wider issue about how we read such challenging texts in our tradition. Joe Mintz, in an article on this page last month looking at racism in the Jewish community, wrote: “The Tanya is stark: ‘the souls of the nations of the world derive from the impure kelipot, which contain no good whatsoever’. Kelipot, or husks, is a kabbalistic concept, meaning the negative aspects of creation.”
Although many Lubavitch Chasidim are uncomfortable with this statement, within the Tanya there is no direct counter-text. The view presented is that non-Jews are a different and lesser type of human being than Jews. Complex arguments have been presented to ameliorate this and of course the late Rebbe had campaigned for nonJews to keep the seven Noachide laws. Nevertheless, the Lubavitch community can take these teaching to a logical conclusion and so, for example, do not accept the use of the Hertz Chumash and other Soncino commentaries on the Bible because they include the work of non-Jewish scholars.
Taken at face value, such teachings are inappropriate for a non-Lubavitch orthodoxcommunity.TheUnitedSynagogue believes in a “modern and inclusive brand of Judaism”. I therefore felt obliged to object to a United Synagogue teaching them as part of our tradition. Notwithstanding that the Tanya’s mystical approach to Judaism has great appeal for many people, there are many other places available where this can be studied.
While it is anachronistic to accuse any work before the 19th century of “racism”, we have to decide how to approach texts which can be read as such nowadays. Of course, it would be wrong to judge the Al- ter Rebbe, the author of the Tanya, for this, just as one cannot condemn Shakespeare for Shylock. Both authors were geniuses whose works must be understood and appreciated in their context. There is nothing wrong in studying and teaching the Tanya, just so long as every word in it is not regarded as holy writ. But we would do well to get a grounding in classical Jewish sources first.
If our local church allowed a course of lectures uncritically teaching the racial or spiritual inferiority of Jews, we would be rightly upset and expect it to be stopped. We must not expect less from ourselves than we do from our neighbours. The question is: is “our” racism better than
“their” racism? Dan Rickman wrote his MA on attitudes towards non-Jews
in the Talmud