Since I began writing about the Tanya – Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi‘s revolutionary work on Hasidut from the late 18th century – I have been asked many times about the connection of Tanya to Kabbalah.
First of all, one must be cautioned that, when speaking about Kabbalah, it does not refer to the numerous imitations being sold nowadays in the form of little booklets, red strings, and healing waters. All of these approaches take the name of Kabbalah in vain, for the utmost secrets of the world and the promise of eternal life, protective angels, and supreme devotion cannot be purchased for five cents apiece. This type of commercialized mysticism is surely more propagated today than authentic Kabbalah and has the dangerous ability to deceive the masses into believing that they have discovered the essence of Kabbalah.
Kabbalah is – or at least has been for the last 500 years – the official theology of the Jewish people. It is the route to gaining a better understanding of the relationship between man and God. Anyone who feels any sort of connection to God should have enough sense to be interested in knowing God. This is true about so many other things; for instance, if I love or admire somebody, I have a desire to know that person better and in a deeper, more intimate way.
As a genre of literature, Tanya is what one may call “applied Kabbalah.” It is not a pure theological statement or part of the theology itself; rather, it is Kabbalah as applied to the problems of the human psyche and of human life.
The Tanya is clearly a book about morals and morality, a guide for those trying to find a way to reach higher and to become more refined spiritual beings. It is a story of war, the eternal – or at least, the very consistent – battle raging within every human being. In this story, the person himself is not the actor; he is the battlefield.
In studying this struggle, it is of course important to identify the parties at war – what are these facets of man that are engaged in constant battle? Interestingly enough, the book of the Tanya defines the two sides not as good and evil, and also not as body vs. spirit. It is not, in essence, the children of darkness against the children of light, though at times it does come to that. Instead, it calls it a war of the animal against the Divine.
Man is basically a creature of zoology, but he is also created from a Divine mold. These two sides of humanity are clashing constantly over the question of identity: Who am I, and how can I be defined? Tanya seeks to clarify for its readers the distinction between the animal and Divine parts of man and to explain why they are in intrinsic and unending disagreement with one another.
In this book, the animal soul does not have the base definition that often comes to mind. The Tanya does not view the animal as the domain of the so-called carnal desires or physical needs. Rather, it speaks about the self -that level of man that views itself as the beginning of everything. No creature of zoology can really think about anything without using itself as a starting point: I exist, I am the center of everything, I am the purpose of everything, and from here I go on. The essence of man’s purpose is this struggle to get out of the self, to break free of his animalistic confines in order to connect with the Divine.
While the description of this battle within each human being is an important part of the book, the Tanya also tries to devise strategies to help people win this war. It teaches how one can do better and how one can give the side of the “good” some ability to effectively overcome its opponent.
The study of Tanya is a demanding one, but it is perhaps one of the most approachable means to Kabbalah. Like many other pieces of Hasidic literature, the Tanya has taken some of the most grand and abstract notions of the world and put them in such a way that they become meaningful in life. In a very practical way, this book offers those seeking a more spiritual existence the formulas through which they can better know God, and better know themselves.
Ideas from this essay are expounded upon in Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Learning From the Tanya: Volume Two in the Definitive Commentary on the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah (Jossey-Bass, 2005).