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 Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

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

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