Monday, July 25, 2011

How is Chassidus different from Kabbalah?

At first glance, both Kabbalah and Chassidus explain Hashem’s greatness. How are they different, and if Kabbalah had already been revealed, what did Chassidus come to add?

This is a large topic, and of course, an article of this length cannot begin to do it justice, but I will touch on one aspect of it below.

Although Kabbalah offers explanations of G–dliness, when these ideas are examined, the explanations it gives are incomplete. This wisdom is so lofty that it does not truly descend into human intellect; thus, a regular person cannot grasp it, even if he is highly intelligent. Who then is able to understand it? One who is somehow connected to a level that transcends intellect. This exalted spiritual state “fills in the gaps,” enabling one to properly grasp these rarefied concepts.

There are two ways of possessing this level of sensitivity.

From above: A Jew who is born with a particularly lofty neshamah may be endowed with the power to grasp these lofty concepts.

From below: A Jew who has invested tremendous effort to rectify all his sins and failings and has succeeded, and then gone still further and reached an advanced level of self-refinement, may manage to elevate himself to this level.

Until Chassidus was revealed, in order to truly grasp the explanations of the sublime levels of G–d’s greatness found in Kabbalah, one had to be a fit “vessel” by fulfilling at least one of the above requirements. The revelation of Chassidus, however, made it possible for any Jew to grasp Hashem’s greatness, even without having satisfied either of these requirements.

But what is so different and special about Chassidus? What quality does it have that Kabbalah lacks, making it accessible to every Jew? The answer:Chassidus in general, and Chassidus Chabad in particular, brings Hashem’s greatness down into sechel enoshi, human understanding.

How does it do this? It is written, “From my flesh I see Hashem.”[1] This encapsulates the entire goal of Chassidus—to explains in great depth and detail the faculties of the soul, and how they interact with one another. Since the Jew’s soul descends from the higher spiritual worlds,[2] everything in our inner selves parallels the world at large, and can thus be used to understand it. Thus Chassidus uses as its mashal, analogy (pl.meshalim), the soul’s faculties
—“my flesh”—in all its intricacies, through which we are able to “see Hashem”—to understand the nimshal (concept being explained by the analogy) of sublime levels of Hashem’s greatness.

Although Kabbalah also employs analogies from the soul to explain G–dliness, it does not explain these analogies, nor does it necessarily explain exactly which aspect of them corresponds to the nimshal in what way; it merely states the analogies simply. If there is any explanation, it is minimal.

This is one reason that it is considered dangerous to study Kabbalah without being a vessel for it. The lack of down-to-earth explanation makes one liable to fall into the trap of construing the analogies in Kabbalah literally. This is called hagshamah—lit., “making material,” or “corporealization.” Its opposite is hafshatah, lit., “divestiture,” or “abstraction.” Hafshatah is the ability to “see through” the details of themashal to the nimshal of G–dliness that it is coming to inform us of. Since this is a requirement for studying Kabbalah, we find that the Baal Shem Tov instructed those whom he saw as susceptible to hagshamah—apparently, the vast majority of people—not to study Kabbalah.

Now, let’s explain hagshamah more. On the lowest level of hagshamah, one believes that Hashem literally has a hand or foot, or the like, G–d forbid. A less coarse, but still forbidden level of hagshamah is to believe that Hashem is some kind of limited entity, albeit a very sublime one, such as one of the Sephiros (divine attributes), and to pray to a Sephirah, G–d forbid, instead of to Hashem Himself.[3]

An even more abstract kind of hagshamah, but hagshamah nonetheless, is even an incomplete understanding of an analogy, applying aspects of it to Hashem that were not meant to be applied, and neglecting to apply aspects of it to Hashem that were meant to be applied, may result inhagshamah, G–d forbid.

And when one “coarsens” Hashem, G–d forbid, while studying Kabbalah, this in turn greatly “coarsens” the student of Kabbalah; in other words, it has a very detrimental spiritual effect upon him (along the lines of the words of our Sages that if one learns Torah inappropriately, it becomes a “potion of death”[4] for him). This is highly unfortunate, for his intention in his studies was surely to become more refined.

This explains further what was quoted earlier that to learn Kabbalah one must either have a lofty neshamah or be very refined, for only then can we be confident that the person will not fall into hagshamah.

In contrast, the analogies offered in Chassidus are always accompanied with explanations[5
] that make clear that not only does Hashem in His Essence (“Atzmus”) have no physical form, but He has no spiritual form either. Likewise, the explanation offered makes clear which aspects of the analogies are relevant, and which ones are not.

Once one has acquired a broad knowledge in Chassidus, one may be equipped to study Kabbalah as well, and understand it properly.[6] Conversely, Chassidus protects one from erring in one’s understanding of the works of Kabbalah. Thus, for someone to learn Kabbalah without the explanations of Chassidus and “make his own way” in Kabbalah would be presumptuous—he would be presuming that he is not in the category of those whom the Baal Shem Tov warned against learning works of Kabbalah lest they commit hagshamah and thereby become greatly coarsened.[7] Thus, learning Chassidus before Kabbalah is vital.[5]

Based on Kuntres Inyanah Shel Toras HaChassidus, p. 1. Toras Sholom, pp. 113, 185.

[1] Iyov 19:26.
[2] Tanya, ch. 3, beg.
[3] Derech Mitzvosecha, Shoresh Mitzvas HaTefillah, 115b. Cf. Shivchei HaBesht, p. 250.
[4] Yoma 72b.
[5] Igros Kodesh, Vol. 22, pp. 58-59.
[6] Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 35, p. 295.
[7] Igros Kodesh, Vol. 8, p. 223. Also, see ibid. Vol. 13, p. 403.

This post was written by the author in honor of the third birthday of his daughter, Shaina bas Atara Arielle, on 22 Tammuz. It was also dedicated by Rivkah Katz and family, so that it be a merit for the refuah sheleimah of HaRav Meir HaKohen ben Rochel Dilkah. Lastly, this post was dedicated by Ephraim Tunaick in honor of his mother, Miriam Shaina bas Asher ע"ה.

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