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Debate over the Tanya continues

A few weeks ago a synagogue in England cancelled a class on the Tanya because of ideas which were contained in the book that it felt were racist. See this post at Ishim ve-Shitot for some discussion of these ideas within the context of kabbalistic literature. The Jewish Chronicle has pro and con columns regarding the question. I don’t know much about kabbalistic literature, so I can’t comment much on the question, although I identify with some of these thoughts that were written in the Chronicle.

While it is anachronistic to accuse any work before the 19th century of “racism”, we have to decide how to approach texts which can be read as such nowadays. Of course, it would be wrong to judge the Alter Rebbe, the author of the Tanya, for this, just as one cannot condemn Shakespeare for Shylock. Both authors were geniuses whose works must be understood and appreciated in their context. There is nothing wrong in studying and teaching the Tanya, just so long as every word in it is not regarded as holy writ. But we would do well to get a grounding in classical Jewish sources first.

If our local church allowed a course of lectures uncritically teaching the racial or spiritual inferiority of Jews, we would be rightly upset and expect it to be stopped. We must not expect less from ourselves than we do from our neighbours. The question is: is “our” racism better than “their” racism?

Update: See this article by Menachem Kellner and the literature referenced in footnotes 12 and 26 for some discussion of these questions.

4 Responses to “Debate over the Tanya continues”

  1. 1

    Michael —

    I’m unaware of any religion that does not maintain that its members are not elevated over those of other religions. Is Christianity about love? Because all non-Christians are going to eternal torment. Is Buddhism all about knowledge and understanding? Because non-Buddhists are going to be reincarnated as a rock.

    In other words, the claim “if our local church allowed a course of lectures uncritically teaching the . . . spiritual inferiority of Jews” is not where I would draw the line — as I understand matters, this is in fact the traditional Christian position.

    The New Testament is full of complaints against Pharisees — and modern Protestants seem to have no problem decrying “legalisms.” I understand these to be slurs against Post-Temple Judaism (and in the case of “legalisms” — against both Jews and Catholics.)

    So do Jews have two souls while Gentiles have only one? I think the view is defensible in the following sense: Jews have a special sensitivity to the Divine by means of having the burden of the commandments. In any case, anti-gentile feeling is rampant not only in Kabbalistic literature, but also in Chazal and for that matter the Bible.

    To represent things otherwise is “cleaning up” history.

    Do we represent gentiles as being at the same level of spiritual maturity as the Kabbalistic masters? I don’t understand this to be Hasidic position or that of observant Judaism in general

  2. 2

    Sorry — my post has a triple negative in the first sentence: it should read “I’m unaware of any religion that does not maintain that its members are elevated over those of other religions.”

  3. 3

    Iyov completely misses the point which is about how one can reconcile such kabbalistic ideas with the idea of our common humanity (you can’t as far as I am aware) and also how we read what Chazal says in a modern context

  4. 4
    Menachem Mendel:


    I agree with you that all, or most religions, “maintain that its members are elevated over those of other religions.” The relevant question here may be whether there is an ontological difference between Jews and Gentiles. In addition to Kabbalistic literature, this question has been discussed in relation to Yehudah haLevi’s Kuzari.




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