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Where Chabad and Breslov Meet

[Translator’s note: the key word in this article is תְּמִימוּת which generally refers to “sincerity” (Yiddish: ehrnstkeit). Since it has a number of different nuances it has been translated variably here as “sincere,” “simple,” “innocent” or “naïve” depending on the context. Similarly, חָכְמָהָ has been translated as “wisdom” or “shrewdness.” For the original Hebrew article, see here]

Wisdom vs. Shrewdness

Where does a Breslover chassid and a Chabad-Lubavitch chassid meet? Those of us who are familiar with these two distinct paths of Chassidut know that usually a Chabadnik (follower of Chabad) and a Breslover (follower of Breslov) have two very different character types. For example, utilizing the intellectual faculties of the mind in long, profound, and meticulous meditation is one of the fundamental principles of Chabad. This is the approach emphasized by the founder of Chabad Chassidut, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Indeed, the initials of the words “wisdom” (חָכְמָה), “understanding” (בִּינָה) and “knowledge” (דַּעַת) spell out the name by which this Chassidut is called, “Chabad” (חב”ד).

In contrast, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov offers a dire warning, “For in truth, one needs to actually eliminate the intellect, for one should discard all intellectual pursuits and serve God simply.” [1] “The fundamental goal and the perfected state is only to serve God with absolute sincerity, without any shrewdness.” [2] In Rebbe Nachman’s Tales of Old, in his “Tale of a Shrewd Man and a Simpleton,” he glowingly depicts the virtues of the simpleton who has a lowly, unsophisticated intellect, behaves with utmost sincerity and is happy with his lot. By contrast, the shrewd man researches and studies everything, but is a surly and irritable fellow. He gets so wrapped up in his hypercritical analysis until eventually he is condemned to the bitter results of his own critique. The simpleton, who is depicted as being ingenuously optimistic and cheerful, is eventually appointed as the state’s governor who is loved by everyone.

So, there appears to be an inherent contradiction between Rebbe Nachman’s approach and that of Rabbi Schneur Zalman. However, when we deepen our contemplation further, we begin to see where these two paths meet [just as these two tzadikim (righteous persons) lived during the same period and even met with each other in practice].

Overturning the Seder Plate

In actual practice, sincerity is also given top rating in Chabad. This is particularly apparent in the writings of the fifth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber. He was an outstanding intellectual scholar of Chassidut, but he was also the one who brought the teachings of Chassidut down into a systemized order. Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber is so known for this aspect of his teachings that he is referred to as “The Rambam of Chassidut”; a reference to Maimonides who systemized the legal dimension of the Torah in his magnum opus, Mishneh Torah.

Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber’s son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, related that at the Passover seder, when they reached the recital of the four sons in the Haggadah, Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber would soundly reprove the wise son with harsh criticism, while praising the simple son (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak related that, as a child, he would be afraid to sit next to his father, because he thought that his father’s criticism of the wise son was directed at him…).

Obviously, Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber agreed with the accepted interpretation of the four sons in theHaggadah, according to which the wise son stands in opposition to the wicked son, but is nonetheless righteous. But as a short-term lesson, Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber saw fit to “overturn the seder plate” (as it were), to emphasize the Chassidic idea that the wise son is somehow “seated” opposite, or in opposition to, the simple son. According to the arrangement of the four sons according to Chassidut, the simple son should be seen as the righteous son, and the wise son is just another type of wicked son. This unique and startling interpretation was made in order to stress the imminent danger of theHaskalah (“Enlightenment”) Movement which threatened to completely uproot Judaism from its source.

The Yeshivah for Sincere Students

Even in his Chassidic writings, Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber explains with profound intensity the importance of the quality of sincerity and how it is supreme to all other qualities. He used to say that the closer the generations come to the final redemption, the more they need to acquire the quality of sincerity. Above all else, sincerity will be the only quality we need to overcome the difficulties during the time that directly precedes the redemption. Indeed, one of Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber’s most important enterprises was the establishment of an education system, which he named “Tomchei Temimim” (תּוֹמְכֵי תְמִימִים), which literally means the “Supporters of the Sincere.” Each student that attends theyeshivah is likewise referred to as a “tamim” (sincere one), because whoever enters this yeshivah to study Torah must acquire the quality of sincerity together with his Torah studies. [3]

Simple, but not Brainless

Although sharp-intelligence is the general approach of Chabad, this approach to the study of Chassidut also recognizes the importance of simple sincerity. So too, Rebbe Nachman values wisdom (and he himself was very intelligent), but in general emphasizes simple sincerity. Indeed, in his “Tale of a Shrewd Man and a Simpleton,” the simpleton has an “unsophisticated and low-level” intellect, in order to emphasize the fact that even without a brilliant talent the innocent wisdom of the simpleton is preferable to the profound wisdom of the shrewd man. However, this does not mean that someone who is blessed with a sharp mind should act as if he is stupid. Rebbe Nachman’s simpleton is referring to someone who is sincere and guileless, not to someone who is unintelligent.

To understand who the praiseworthy simpleton is, let’s take a look at the type of wise person we oppose. Let’s not forget that in the Torah, a wise person is depicted as something very positive. In fact, wisdom is the most precious attribute of all. [4] But here, we are not referring to a wise sage, but to a “wise-guy”; the “know-it-all” whose wisdom has become his impediment, as the Talmud [5] states, “The greater one’s wisdom, the greater he is misguided.” Instead of using simple common-sense, a quick mind may easily become warped. This is what happened to the shrewd man in the “Tale of the Shrewd Man and the Simpleton,” and this is the type of wisdom that Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber at the seder table wished to do away with. In this tale, the shrewd man questions everything, so much so that when the king sends for him, he questions the king’s very existence. The modern-day allegory is clear: this is referring to the “shrewd” scientist who stubbornly claims that there is no judgment and no Judge to the world.

In contrast to the shrewd wise-guy, the simpleton is not as dumb as he looks. We cannot accuse Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber of wanting to educate his yeshivah to produce brainless “simpletons.” He was extremely intelligent himself, and studying his Chassidic writings demands a high level of intellectual effort. In fact, there is a sharp Chassidic saying which Chabadniks quote in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov, that “the first mitzvah is to be intelligent and to be stupid is a Torah prohibition…” However, a truly sincere person recoils from quick minded wise-guy skepticism. He has honest common-sense and a healthy intuition that hits the mark, even when his knowledge is not particularly broad, and he doesn’t have such a quick mind (which is a gift that not everyone is granted). The sincere person’s wisdom flourishes on his faith and his sincerity is more precious to him than complex critique. It was this type of sincere student that Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber wished to cultivate. The simple tamim who is not stupid in the least, but who also does not allow his wisdom to damage his sincerity and innocence. In this way, Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber’s tamim is similar to the simpleton in Rebbe Nachman’s tale.

In short: the goal is to be an intelligent person who retains his sincerity and honest common-sense.

Let’s not be too naïve though, there is still a difference between the teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman and Rebbe Nachman. Nonetheless, they are both unanimous in their agreement that sincerity comes first. Indeed, this is what the Torah commands us explicitly, “Be sincere with Havayah your God.” [6] In the Torah portion of Toldot, sincerity is the first and most significant title that Jacob receives, “And the boys grew up and Esau became a man who knows hunting, a man of the field, and Jacob was a sincere man, who dwelt in tents.” [7] Jacob thus joins two of the previous figures in the Book of Genesis—Noah and Abraham—who are both associated with the quality of sincerity, as the verses state, “Noah was a righteous man, he was sincere in his generation” [8] and God told Abraham, “Walk before Me and be sincere.”

Natural Innocence

The most superior type of sincerity—innocent sincerity—comes naturally. The naturally innocent person is not even aware of the fact that he is innocent; that is just the way he is. He is innocent to the core, and he does not need to be taught what innocence is. All of us were young and innocent as children, but there are those who retain their innocence throughout their adult lives. Even when they grow up and become acquainted with the world at large, and acquire a great deal of wisdom and knowledge, nonetheless they don’t lose their childhood innocence.

We can learn about “natural innocence” by contemplating the verses referring to our Matriarch Sarah’s life. In the previous Torah portion, after she passed away, the Torah writes, “And Sarah’s life was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” [9] The sages explain that at twenty years old she had the beauty of a seven-year-old girl. [10] Yet, at first glance, this interpretation does not seem to be appropriate, for the beauty of a twenty-year old woman is far more outstanding than the beauty of a seven-year-old child! But we learn from this that the beauty of a seven year old is preferable because it relates to the natural, innocent beauty of a young girl who is unaware of her beauty. Sarah’s praise was thus not only for her actual beauty, but that she retained her innocent beauty throughout her entire life. Even when she looked in the mirror, she was not affected by her looks, and didn’t care whether or not she was the “fairest of them all”…

Usually, the more one is self-aware―the self-conscious state that came as a result of eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil―the more he loses his innate sense of sincere and natural innocence, as the verse states, “The more one knows, the more it hurts.” [11] Right now, our task is to work on our own lost quality of innocence, and to reacquire and reintegrate it into our psyches until it once again becomes our natural perspective on life.

This is something that both Rabbi Schneur Zalman—founder of Chabad, and Rebbe Nachman—founder of Breslov, most definitely agree with!

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class to women, Kfar Chabad, 20 Cheshvan 5774

In Rebbe Nachman’s Tale, the wise man and the simpleton are depicted as two opposites, but the truly wise man is himself an innocent simpleton. We chose the picture of two of our favorite modern-day characters—Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh and Harav Shalom Arush—both of whom are wise and both of whom are innocent. One of them is identified with Chabad Chassidut and the other is acquainted with Breslov. Here they appear together.

The picture was photographed at last year’s amazing 19 Kislev farbrengen in the Binyanei Ha’umah hall in Jerusalem. This is a great opportunity to remind you all to come to this year’s farbrengen on Thursday evening, 19 Kislev (21 Nov) there as well. Don’t miss it!

[1] Likutei Moharan II, 5.

[2] Ibid 19.

[3] In fact, the Torah itself is called sincere, “God’s Torah is sincere” (Psalms 19:8).

[4] As the book of Proverbs depicts quite clearly in numerous verses.

[5] Baba Metzia 96b.

[6] Deuteronomy 18:13.

[7] Genesis 25:27.

[8] Ibid 6:9.

[9] Ibid 23:1.

[10] See Ibid, Rashi ad loc.; Bereishit Rabah 58:1. The interpretation brought here on innocent beauty can be found in Sefer Pardes Yosef in the name of the author of Yeshuot Malko.

[11] Ecclesiastes 1:18.

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