During my early teen years, I frequently visited the home of a cousin who is a fervent Visznitzer Chassid. In his living room hung a picture of the "chassidic tree" - a famous drawing of a tree, with names of the chassidic Rebbeim superimposed. The trunk, of course, is the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch. The main limbs of the tree are the Maggid's disciples. The branches and twigs are their disciples and descendants, and their later successors.
Following the main limb of the Alter Rebbe, that diagram only went as far as the Tzemach Tzedek; a later edition of the same diagram also includes the Rebbe Maharash. But within this chassidic tree, these nesi'im of Chabad appear to occupy only a small cluster, almost lost among other branches and twigs. And yet, the Chabad branch of Chassidus has played a central role in the development and dissemination of the Chassidic Movement, far beyond the proportion of space it was granted on the tree.
Once, shortly after I began to visit "Seven-Seventy" regularly, I overheard a conversation among chassidim of various factions, each promoting his own family's Rebbe and his own brand of Chassidus. Since no one else present mentioned Lubavitch, I attempted to join the conversation as the Lubavitcher representative.
My remarks were quickly cut short by the others. Though each claimed that his own Rebbeim were superior to the others, all seemed to agree that Lubavitch was something separate and different, and had no place in a discussion of "mainstream" factions of Chassidus. "Chabad is a separate philosophy and a different way of life from all other types of Chassidus," objected one Belzer Chassid.
"The Baal HaTanya was, after all, only one of the Maggid's many disciples, and the youngest at that. Why do you Lubavitchers act as if you have a monopoly on the Baal Shem Tov?" demanded a chassid of Karlin-Stolin. Being by far the youngest person present, I quickly retreated and left the others to continue the conversation.
To tell the truth, the points they had brought up troubled me as well. My own roots lay in the Chassidus of Galicia and Bukovina, and to me Lubavitcher ways and customs appeared strange and "unchassidic."
Years later, when I had become (what these days passes for) a full-fledged Lubavitcher, the questions raised long ago no longer bothered me, but they remained unanswered. And then, the periodical HaTamim was reprinted. I now came upon the Previous Rebbe's essay "Fathers of Chassidus," - and the accompanying introductory letter - which answer these very questions. And the questions had been asked by none other than the Rebbe himself!
In this essay, the Previous Rebbe presents us with an historical overview of the Chassidic Movement, its founding, development, and dissemination - from the beginning through 1920. Like much of the Previous Rebbe's historical work, it is written from a biographical perspective. It features the seven generations of Nesi'im, from the Baal Shem Tov through the Rebbe Rashab, which the Previous Rebbe calls the seven "Branches of the Chassidic Menorah." Included are stories illustrating the way of life of young Torah scholars of White Russia during the development period of Chassidus.
Unfortunately, only the first three branches of the Menorah were actually printed in HaTamim. Further publication ceased with the impending outbreak of World War II. Some of the material prepared for later issues remained in the Previous Rebbe's library, and later became available to chassidim in typewritten form (for example, "the Debate in Minsk").
This volume contains the first part of the essay "Fathers of Chassidus," the Previous Rebbe's letter concerning the essay, and additional supplementary material. The remainder of the essay and more supplementary material will appear (with G-d's help) in Vol. 2.
Branches of the Chassidic Menorah continues our series of translations of the Previous Rebbe's historical and biographical narratives: The Making of Chassidim, and Links in the Chassidic Legacy. Like those translations, the present work first appeared in my weekly column "Biographical Sketches" in Beis Moshiach Magazine.
As printed in HaTamim, the Previous Rebbe divided the essay into numbered sections, indicating that he considered the order to be important. We have therefore departed from our previous practice, and refrained from rearranging the text. Instead, headings have been inserted to guide the reader in navigating the narrative flow.
We have also divided the text into chapters (most of the chapter breaks and titles do not appear in the original text). I have added some explanatory footnotes and bibliographic references; these are enclosed within brackets. Footnotes without brackets appeared in the original text.
The map of Europe has changed many times in the past 250 years, and many of the geographic names used in the text have since been changed, or have disappeared from the map altogether. Other names are of Yiddish origin, and never appeared on standard maps. Therefore, I have added a guide to Geographic Terms to orient the reader in this area. I have also added an ancestral tree of the Previous Rebbe, as an aid in following the complex interrelationships in the family of the Rebbeim.
I am grateful to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Keller for providing me with a copy of the manuscript of "The Debate in Minsk," and other helpful background material. My profound thanks also to the staff and administration of Sichos In English - Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, who effected the final editorial review; Rabbi Yonah Avtzon, who managed - and obtained financing for - the entire project; and Yosef Yitzchak Turner, who prepared the final printed text.
A recurring theme in the Rebbe's teachings is that the study, dissemination, and practice of the Baal Shem Tov's teaching is the final step in the messianic process - a process that has been ongoing since the Creation, and now reaches its imminent climax. May our study of the lifestyles of our Rebbeim and their disciples, lead us to a deeper study of their teachings, so that we may follow the path they have set out for us - the path leading to the messianic age and the awakening of those who "dwell in the dust," immediately NOW.
Motzoei Shabbos, 18 Elul 5757
(Birthday of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe)
Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY
One wintry evening in 5531, the gaon Rabbi Yosef Kalbo and several other of the leading Torah scholars from the city of Shklov were studying in the beis hamedrash of the Perushim. A young man carrying a small pack entered the study hall and went to the furnace to warm himself. It was obvious that he was weary and drained from his journey. After giving the guest some time to compose himself, one of Shklov's more prominent scholars greeted the guest and engaged him in a Torah discussion. The guest's unique manner of explanation impressed him and he called some of his colleagues to listen to the guest's insights.
As the hours passed, the circle of scholars surrounding the guest widened. He began to expound on different Talmudic passages, to the absolute satisfaction of all his guests. Rav Yosef Kalbo had no words to praise the guest's approach to study. "This is true scholarship," he exclaimed. "It expands the mind, rather than constricts and narrows its focus, as do most approaches to pilpul."
For the next two days, the guest was asked to lecture in various rabbinic forums throughout Shklov. All of the scholars of the city including the rav of the city, Rav Henoch Schick, were impressed with the guest's vast knowledge and clarity of thinking.
For the entire time he was in Shklov, the guest did not reveal his identity. Later it became known that he was the Alter Rebbe.
This narrative reflects the approach taken by the Alter Rebbe in the controversy between the misnagdim and the chassidim. The Alter Rebbe did not fight against anyone. Though he stood in the midst of a very stormy conflict, he never launched an attack. His energies were not focused on negativity at all. Instead, he studied and he taught. Quietly, lovingly, with genuine care, he reached out to everyone. He respected the positive qualities, that others - even his opponents - possessed. He realized that it was not by diminishing who they were that he would win them to his side, but by showing them the positive virtues which Chassidus possessed. He was convinced that even his antagonists, when exposed to the approach he taught, would appreciate that he met their standards of Torah leadership. And he felt that there would be many who would understand how this new approach broadened their horizons and elevated their Divine service.
In the essay "Fathers of Chassidus," whose translation is presented here, the Previous Rebbe emphasizes these themes, demonstrating how the Alter Rebbe countered the opposition which Chassidism met at its inception, and how he paved the way for the two approaches to be reconciled.
One of the standard arguments which their contenders have presented to chassidim over the years is that study and observance are benchmarks that can easily be evaluated. You can see whether a person observes, how much he has studied, and whether he therefore qualifies to serve as a mentor. They would argue that the love and fear of G-d, and the inspirational spiritual service which Chassidism emphasizes, by contrast, are intangible qualities, which you cannot quantify or evaluate. Therefore, if they are accepted as the criteria for leadership, a common person - and for that matter, a scholar - can be misled in his appreciation of who is a proper spiritual guide.
The Alter Rebbe's response to this challenge was not to reject the norms which the others suggested. Instead, he showed excellence in those areas, and simultaneously, emphasized that this excellence comes as a result of a more comprehensive approach that is based on a different standard, a higher and more far-reaching appreciation of G-d and our obligation to serve Him.
A reader may be feel challenged by a conceptual difficulty when reading this essay. For the essay was written by the Previous Rebbe in response to questions from the Rebbe regarding the differences in approach between Chabad Chassidus and the approach to Chassidus followed in Vohlynia-Poland-Galicia, and the fact that on the surface, the intellectual thrust of Chabad appears to be a departure from the Baal Shem Tov's approach. Nevertheless, instead of focusing primarily on that issue, the essay appears to shift the stress and elaborates on the conflict between the chassidim and the misnagdim and the Alter Rebbe's approach to it.
It is true that both issues divided the Maggid's students along almost the same lines. The leaders of Chassidus in Vohlynia-Poland-Galicia who placed the emphasis on the spiritual power of the tzaddik, were the same who called for harsh spiritual measures to be employed in the conflict with the misnagdim. And conversely, the majority of those who accepted the Alter Rebbe's emphasis on individual Divine service, approved of his efforts to educate rather than combat the misnagdim.
This was not, however, a matter of a mere consensus. Instead, one position was the outgrowth of the other. The leaders of Chassidus in Vohlynia-Poland-Galicia saw the outward expression of spiritual vitality as the highest goal. And since their fire was directed outward, when conflict arose, they sought to meet it head on.
The Alter Rebbe, by contrast, placed the emphasis on an inward thrust, realizing the spiritual potential that each individual himself possesses. A person involved in such Divine service is not daunted by external challenge. Indeed, any such challenges are considered as prods to cause him to look deeper inside himself and find a more powerful truth, confident that the integrity of his approach will ultimately be recognized by his adversary, for "The unique dimension of truth is that accord is reflected from every side."
The Alter Rebbe's conduct is not just a story of the path, but a legacy for our time. Our people is not a single homogenous entity, but a blend of many individuals each with his own nature and tendency. This diversity need not lead to difference. On the contrary, the most comprehensive conception of unity involves forging an organic whole from diverse entities. Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, there are times when inner differences will result in external division.
Here the Alter Rebbe's example of love and truth is most relevant. There is no need to sacrifice an iota of one's principles; on the contrary, if they are genuine, they cannot be sacrificed, for truth is unchanging. On the other hand, there is no place for conflict. Teach patiently; provide a sincere example of proper conduct. People will respond, for "The unique dimension of truth is that accord is reflected from every side."
May this approach lead very speedily to the ultimate expression of love and truth, the coming of the Redemption, when "those who repose in the dust" will "arise and sing." And we will again hear teachings from the Rebbe, the Previous Rebbe, the Alter Rebbe, and all the other tzaddikim. May this take place in the immediate future.
11th Day of Nissan, 5758
Below, we present an excerpt from a letter by the Rebbe Shlita
written to one of his rabbinic sons-in-law,
referring to the essay "Fathers of Chassidus," which he wrote while he resided in Marienbad. [The letter is dated] 23 Menachem Av 5691 [August 6, 1931].
...regarding your inquiry about the history of Toras Chassidus Chabad, its establishment, development, and dissemination:
My first thought was that the preparation of an essay on this important and lofty subject could be more easily undertaken if I were at home, where I could use the resources of my library of sacred manuscripts.
However, I was also aware of the busy daily routine I keep at home, and the large amount of work I am burdened with. What would most likely occur upon my fortunate return home, is that I would be beset by my usual daily schedule, and I would not find the time for this job.
Consequently, I deemed it better to write at least a few lines, containing a general overview of the seven generations of the Fathers of Chassidus, representing the seven "Branches of the Chassidic Menorah." This may then serve as the mortar and bricks from which a finished essay on our subject could later be constructed.
I chose a quiet nook that afforded privacy from the tourists hiking around the hills of Marienbad. This spot was furnished with a table and a chair. I wrote for six or seven hours each day, until (with G-d's help) I managed to compose a brief outline of the history of the establishment of Toras Chassidus Chabad, its expansion, and its dissemination....
- (Back to text) Ralbag, Sefer Milchemes HaShem, Discourse 6, the conclusion of ch. 15, cited in Kitzurim VeHaaros LeTanya, p. 102.
- (Back to text) Yeshayahu 26:19.
- (Back to text) From HaTamim, Vol. 2, p. 137.
- (Back to text) [I.e., the Previous Rebbe.]
- (Back to text) [I.e., the Rebbe.]
- (Back to text) [The letter was reprinted in Igros Kodesh of the Rebbe Rayatz, Vol. II, pp. 352-353 (no. 541).]