I am only a beginner student of philosophy, so when I say the Alter Rebbe is the greatest thinker to ever live, it has nothing of the authority of Yitro, who chose G-d after worshipping all idols on the face of the earth. Really, I am giving a considered opinion that may be wrong but nevertheless may have the charm of consistency. I think Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi is a great thinker, indeed, singularly great, for the same reason I think Bach was a great composer and Michelangelo a great artist and Die Hard a great action movie.
This is not to say that the Alter Rebbe is like any of the aforementioned examples, in truth. Bach composed music and Die Hard is undoubtedly a film with explosions, but the Alter Rebbe is not, primarily, a philosopher; to call him a philosopher is to do him a disservice. His philosophy, Chassidus Chabad, may be the form of Jewish mysticism most interested in discursive reason, rational understanding, and systematic thoroughness, but it is (as the Alter Rebbe and his successors emphasize repeatedly) a Chassidus first and a philosophy second. The Alter Rebbe’s modus operandi was to connect Jews with their own souls and with G-d; wisdom, understanding, and knowledge were his means to achieving this end. The Alter Rebbe would likely judge his philosophy not on its own merits but on its ability to unite Jews with G-d.
Thus, the greatest thinker is not even primarily a thinker. This makes a strange sort of sense, since part of his greatness as a philosopher is his constant awareness of the limits of philosophy. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Suffice it to say that if one wishes to put aside the holiness and true purpose of the Alter Rebbe’s leadership and focus solely on his thought as a more-or-less self-contained philosophy, one must have a standard by which to judge. Now, it is commonly asserted that there is no true standard for great art, but I have found one that works for me. Great art is complex but elegant.
That is, great art is as complicated, as detailed, as differentiated in the particulars as it needs to be. If it is too complex, this indicates either pretentiousness, in which a good idea is dressed up as a fantastic idea, or shallowness, a state of all style but no meat. If the art is, on the other hand, not complex enough for its purposes, this indicates a lack of skill (the artist cannot manipulate their medium well enough) or a block of some sort (the artist cannot express their inner reality from the start). The trick to great art, in other words, is to have something to say and then to say entirely it but only it, to perfectly convey something through the complex prism of formed matter, sculpted medium, words, images, sound.
Take Bach, for example. Bach is not truly great because he is innovative (though he is) or due to, G-d forbid, external “chance circumstance” (he happened to know the King of Prussia). True innovation, worthy of the name, is good only inasmuch as the new is superior to the old on merits. Bach was perhaps both innovative and better than those who came before, and perhaps less innovative and better than those who came after. He is not (or ought not to be) respected because he came along at a certain time and fulfilled a certain role; those who so respect him have never really met him.
Bach is great and respected because the Brandenburg Concertos (for example) are wonderfully complex, but their complexity never escapes Bach’s absolute control. He has something to convey and the medium suits the message. Genius-level music theory somehow becomes simultaneously more itself through his composition while also melting away to leave only the soaring and cascading beauty of the music. Nothing is extraneous, everything is necessary, and the music seems to partially transcend time and space in that perfection.
Not to compare even the thought of the Alter Rebbe to these mundane concertos – but how else can I clearly convey the weight of a complete systematic philosophy that seems to touch on, use, and transform every major thought in human history, yet somehow manages to always yield 613 familiar commandments as its bottom line?
In the world of ideas, the Alter Rebbe is a master composer who uses every tool of his craft. The Alter Rebbe has something to say to Aristotelian causality, Nietzschean power, Platonic forms, neo-platonic emanations, Humean skepticism, Kantian ethics, Newtonian mechanics, Jungian archetypes, Wittgensteinian poetry, Cantorian infinitudes, modern radicalism, postmodern negation and meta-negation, and nearly everything in between.
Of course, since he is the holy Alter Rebbe, he never mentions almost any of this by name, nor was any of it necessarily his intention. He engages true ideas, and all truth is in Torah. The Alter Rebbe converses with and synthesizes Talmudic sources and Rashi, Midrash, the Shelah, the Maharal, the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, the Ari Zal, the Rambam, the Ramak, the Ikkarim, the Recanati, R’Saadiah Gaon, the Ma’areches, the Haggadah, Sefer Yetzira, the Siddur, Avodas HaKodesh, scripture, and much else besides.
Furthermore, as a philosophy/mysticism hybrid[i], Chassidus Chabad not only deals with concerns of discursive reason but everything in the human experience that lies outside of reason as well. The philosophy of the Alter Rebbe touches on ritual, music, ethics, aesthetics, faith, love, fear, devotion, lust, sin, repentance, and joy. It speaks of them not only as simple goals of thought or as barriers to thought that must be circumvented, but as human realities in complex interplay with our conscious minds.
In addition, the Alter Rebbe’s way contains a thorough and consistent metaphilosophy; we learn when philosophy begins and when it ends, where it applies and where it doesn’t. This includes an extensive treatment of the psychology of thinking and the relationship within us between our faith, reason, emotion, thought, speech, and action – distinctions not the arbitrary possessions of limited man to be transcended but rather ultimately reflecting G-dly truths.
The entire structure of reason itself is thereby circumscribed and purposive in the Alter Rebbe’s philosophy, as we would expect from the integration of faith and mysticism into a rational system. What greater testament to the balance struck by Rabbi Shneur Zalman than the historical fact that Chabad Chassidus was, in its early days, rejected in equal part by the misnagdic opponents of Chassidus and by many Chassidic Rebbes. The former rejected it for being too mystical, the latter for it being too intellectual. In the rich dialectical complexity of unifying the Baal Shem Tov’s fiery faith with the intellectual Judaism that was ostensibly the subject of the Besht’s rebellion, the Alter Rebbe embraces rationality and mysticism in affirmation and negation in an organic and systematic fashion – everything in its right place.
It must be emphasized that despite the sheer scope and breadth of the Alter Rebbe’s project, none of these components are integrated into his vision inauthentically, that is, without justification in every other part of his vision. On the contrary, the Alter Rebbe’s comprehensive worldview arises as if organically with its own internal logic. This logic derives (as in any system of philosophy) from certain bedrock truths. These truths are both the cause and the organizing purpose of the entire corpus of Chassidus Chabad, and the initial seed from which the erudite synthesis springs.
For all the disparate elements of his system, each pulling in its own direction, the Alter Rebbe’s message is never lost. Every single piece of the kaleidoscopic and (at times) seemingly-contradictory worldview exists to achieve and convey a singular purpose. Never does the Alter Rebbe seem lost in philosophy for philosophy’s sake; the technicality of his astounding mind never becomes opaque; the music is never boring or heartless. The structure is balanced logically and precisely and concludes, both inevitably and automatically, in the commandments of the Torah. No idea manages to spin off into its own form of worship, or arrive at a conclusion contrary to the dictates of Torah. Every single idea is directed toward the fulfillment of an action for G-d, with its correct theoretical, spiritual, and intellectual intention.
Of all the sources from which the Alter Rebbe draws and of all the thinkers both before and after him with whom he converses, it is hard for me to conceive of one that is as broadly-embracing while being as disciplined and thorough as Rabbi Shneur Zalman. The rare confluence of breadth, intricacy, structure, and authenticity can be called elegance. And before we even arrive at his profound holiness, his music, his leadership, his selfless devotion to his fellow Jews, or even his Shulchan Aruch, the Alter Rebbe’s elegance sets him apart.
It is fitting that his philosophy should be elegant above all. This sort of unity between matter and form, soul and body, is the hallmark not only of the style of Chabad Chassidus but of its substance as well, which makes no compromises on the unity between G-d and the world.
The Alter Rebbe’s own teaching is thereby a demonstration of everything he teaches. Between the lone infinite Creator before the creation, and His coming full expression in the lowest of worlds known as Moshiach, lies all of history and the entire human experience as we know it. If there ever lived on this earth one soul who could see how it is all one, my money says it was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.
[i] In the sense meant here, philosophy refers to what can be known through the senses and logical reasoning, whereas mysticism denotes an experiential or phenomenological experience of the divine usually achieved through circumventing the senses and logical reasoning.