THE CLAIM that the Chasidic classic, the Tanya, is a racist work is astounding. Its accusers are obviously unfamiliar with the vocabulary of Jewish philosophy and mysticism which underlies its text. Let us review the relevant passage: “The souls of the nations of idol-worshippers are from the other, the impure ‘shells’ which contain no good at all, as stated in Etz Chaim 49:3. All the good that the nations of idol-worshippers do is done for their own sake, as stated in the Talmud [Baba Bathra 10b] on the verse ‘The kindness of the nations is sin’ [Proverbs 14:34], ie that all the charity and kindness performed by the nations of idol-worshippers is done for the sake of self-glorification.”
If the critics have problems with this passage, their complaint is against the Bible, the Talmud and the writings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. The Tanya is merely quoting these sources. Our Bible has more radical s t a t e me n t s about the people of Israel being God’s chosen people and God’s witnesses on earth.
The passage speaks of idol-worshippers devoid of revealed religion. Elsewhere the author of the Tanya makes it quite clear that the “pious of the nations” (gentiles who follow the moral dictates of the Noachide Code) are excluded from the definition of idol-worshippers.
The critics’ confusion is rooted in their ignorance of the kabbalistic term “impure shells”. In their view this seems to imply that those idolaters are rooted in some demonic or Satanic source distinct from Divinity. In Judaism, of course, there is no such thing of something devoid of Divinity.
Had they attended a class in Tanya, they would have discovered that the realm of “impurity”, too, is infused and sustained by the Divine emanations (the “holy sefirot”), without which nothing could exist. The “impure shells”, too, are Divine creations for the purpose they serve, and the difference between “pure” and “impure” is simply how humans are to relate to them.
Most likely, these critics object also to the classical concept that Jews possess an additional “special soul” which distinguishes them from non-Jews, and cited in the Tanya. To them this surely is the ultimate racism. Yet the selfsame critics themselves proclaim
t h i s distinction and separation loud and clear at the conclusion of every Sabbath and festival when they recite the havdalah blessing, and every festival when they recite the section “ Atah bechartanu” (“You have chosen us”) in the Amidah. They do so because the Torah itself states this explicitly in Leviticus 20:24 and 26, “I have separated you from the nations to be Mine.”
Jews are infused with an additional soul precisely because they need this special endowment to enable them to observe the Torah with its 613 commandments and to carry out their mission to be a Divine beacon to the nations, which requires intensified “energy” for this purpose. Racist? Then to claim that outstanding artists or scientists are endowed with special and extraordinary talents would also be an expression of morally objectionable racism.
To follow any religion fervently means to believe that you are in possession of an absolute truth that has an advantage over all other religions. Otherwise you have no reason to adhere to it with all your mind and soul.
The protesters argue that if a local church were to teach a course claiming Christians are spiritually superior to Jews, they think that should not be tolerated. What do they think is being taught there? Obviously the New Testament. And isn’t that precisely what the New Testament is teaching?
In short, if the erudite critics at Hampstead Garden Suburb insist on cancelling a class in Tanya at their synagogue because of that text’s alleged racism, they should be consistent and also cancel all classes in the Jewish Bible, Liturgy, Talmud and the Codes. Anything less is pure hypocrisy. Yitzchak Schochet is rabbi of Mill Hill United Synagogue