How Academic Chassidus Isn’t

Kislev, time of darkness, month of light. We celebrate the flames of Chanukah and the warmth of Pnimius HaTorah, the secrets, the soul. As the Ten Commandments were given in the third month from Nissan, so was the Alter Rebbe freed from prison in the third month from Tishrei, thereby initiating a new epoch in the study of Chassidus, in the burning of the oil, transcending and permeating ever after.

Transcending, because Chassidus extends beyond its metaphors, attempts to use what is understood to convey or at least intimate the ineffable, and to arouse from its slumber the spark of faith in every Jewish heart.

Permeating, because it is not even confined to the sublime holiness of the Kabbalah, and like the Truth itself flows into every crack and contour of reality, showing how even here, even in this place, even in these terms, there is nothing other than G-d.

Chassidus chooses its own metaphors, using the Kabbalah as its highest guide and every dimension of pshat, remez, and drush, the simple, symbolic, and exegetical to bring the truth lower and lower, until it becomes nearly physical, vibrating not with the rarefied energies of the spiritual worlds but the rhythms of everyday life we were so sure were dead…

There is a strange practice, however, once a niche hobby and now growing slightly more popular, of studying Chassidus as an academic subject. Its texts are hauled out and compared, convoluted technical terms are assigned, historical context is considered. And it works. There are some academics who are masters of Chassidus, especially compared to me. Their knowledge is thorough; they have read not merely most of the discourses and sforim themselves but have also read everything ever written around Chassidus, about it, as a sociological, historical, and religious phenomenon.

They know everything. It’s disheartening.

It reminds me of a story I heard when I first went to yeshiva, about the famous Marcus Jastrow, whose dictionary, despite its age and arcane formatting, is still the go-to tool of the English-speaker looking to learn Talmud in Aramaic. I learned that Jastrow was a true academic, with a PhD from back when the Germans invented them and really meant business. His knowledge of the Talmud was staggering, and his dictionary, compiled long before the invention of electronic research tools, thoroughly boggles the mind.

He knew everything, too.

No yarmulke, though.

I’m not saying the academic study of Chassidus necessarily leads you to taking off your yarmulke.

I do know this, however: The study of Chassidus outside of the academy leads you to putting on your yarmulke.

The nature of Chassidus, the entire point of the transcending and the permeating and the fluid metaphor, is the endless climb into faith indescribable, and the bond between Jew and G-d, and the performance of the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah.

If it is not that, it is not Chassidus.

Therefore, Chassidus cannot be studied academically, in the manner of the university.

Chassidus can’t be studied in university because too few professors will ever feel the tendons in the chicken’s wings as they swing it above their head.

Chassidus can’t be studied academically, because the analysis always says “Chassidim believe” or “adherents understand” but almost never “I am obligated” or “we pray.”

The academic study, subset (though not, as some have proposed, the totality) of intellect, may speak of reality as a null register or the soul’s desire for inexistence, but this is the furthest reach of intellect’s humility. The mind can know that the mind isn’t everything, but it’s still the mind saying it, and the professors never quit, or close down the university.

Chassidus isn’t meant for professors, because how many religious studies majors spend Tishrei with the Rebbe or allow their elbows to run out against the rough Jews the Baal Shem Tov so loves? How many academics see the dignity, the glory, the refinement in fixing a wagon wheel in the Russian mud, or clambering over synagogue benches?

Chassidus can’t be studied academically, because too many words have already been written attributing motives to Chassidic Rebbes that their own children missed because they never studied Hegel or Zen Buddhism.

Chassidus cannot be studied academically because you start by comparing it to Derrida or Kierkegaard, and then you begin to view them as somehow equivalent commentaries on identical truths, and in the end the frustrating non-answers of Chassidus help you better understand the philosophers. This would not be a problem, except it is anathema to the stated goals of Chassidus.

Chassidus doesn’t belong to professors.

Professors belong to Chassidus, according to Chassidus, anyway.

This may sound imperious or even threatening. This is appropriate. Chassidus is not a toy. Many have died for it, and for the minor Jewish customs it inspired them to keep.

Every Rebbe says that the Torah belongs to those who are humble, who are swept away by her, who approach her looking not to impose nor merely to learn but to toil in the word of G-d. Can an academic agree? Their profession is to learn; they exist to analyze detachedly. Can they study Torah? Can they study Chassidus?

There are rumors that Chassidus might provide a framework for rescuing us from our nihilism of late. The problem is that, shockingly, Chassidus actually believes in something, or at least Someone. All her discussions terminate in traditional Judaism; we save the world through Torah and Mitzvos and Teshuva and Emunah, Moshiach is an actual person as necessitated by actually binding law from an actual G-d who actually exists and actually spoke to us and has expectations.

It is not Buddhism.

Chassidus can’t be studied academically because an academic will too often engenders an academic way, and if the Lubavitcher Rebbe appears to be of above-average intelligence his life-calling is said to have been engineering and not plumbing the deepest secrets of the Torah. The deepest secrets of Torah are stepping stones to some new thing, and the attempt to rescue world Jewry was an engineering problem.

You can’t study Chassidus as an academic subject because Chassidus always has the last laugh. Its system is self-destructing; it teaches the mind how to break out of itself, to float up in transparency and become a vessel to the light. Academics are, of course, aware that this is the goal (it’s hardly a secret). Somehow, however, you rarely seem to sniff the light about them.

They can learn it, but they cannot, because of prior obligations, be it. So can they learn it?

Don’t get me wrong. Even their own study of Chassidus is not the academics’ fault. This was always the danger of Chabad in particular. Great Tzaddikim, students of the Maggid, opposed the systemization of Chassidus, the thousands of words and lengthy expositions, because they knew to distrust the intellect and what a human being can destroy with it.

This was largely the story of the 19th of Kislev, of the Alter Rebbe’s salvation from the Czar’s prison, and the danger was justified by a parable.

The king’s son is dying, and nothing can save him. There is only one thing they haven’t tried, one stone unturned. He is told that if the prize of his kingdom, the crown jewel, is ground into a potion, it may save his son’s life. The king agrees immediately, and they destroy what is most precious to his kingship to save the Prince. They pour the potion into his sickly mouth. “If one drop goes in,” says the Alter Rebbe, “it was worth it.”

But when we learn Chassidus, we ought to tremble.

Its teachings are the very crown of the king. They were given to us for no other purpose than to save our lives.

If one drop goes in, it was worth it.