One in One, Equality in Equality

By Hayyim Rothman, Brighton, MA
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


Hasidic Socialism, the Restoration of the Community of Israel,
and a Response to the Crisis of Funding Jewish Education

I. Introduction

It is commonly believed that a socialistic vision is incompatible with Judaism and Jewish life.  The Habad movement, for example, distinguished itself as a force of resistance against the violence of the Soviet regime.  Yet, in his personal account of his experience with the Soviet prison system, it seems that the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe opposed less the socialist idea in itself than specific anti­-religious policies adopted by the Soviet regime.  During his interrogation, after denying the charge that his authority had been used  against the State and to advocate defiance of its laws he concluded his defense in the following manner: [1]

  1. “If my words concerning the study of Torah evoke a dedicated response, and if our kinsmen in America who send money to aid their relatives… this is not a threat to the Soviet Union. The very reverse is true; in this way, foreign currency flows into the land and strengthens the economy.”
  2. “In the year 1924, I wrote a letter to the Jews of America urging them to support the Jewish agricultural settlement in the Soviet Union.”
  3. “You imprison me as an enemy of… the state. This is totally false. Though great differences divide us, I support those efforts that are creative, as my letter to America substantiates.”

From the Rebbe’s perspective, the problem with the Soviets was never the question of socialism per se, but their dogmatic anti­religious and anti­clerical attitude, on the one hand and, on the other, their efforts to suppress religious freedoms in spite of the actual letter of laws protecting them.  In fact, the Rebbe saw fit to encourage support for “creative” economic efforts inspired by the socialist vision.

I would like to take a step further and demonstrate that a socialistic ethos permeated hasidic thought from its inception.  It is my intent to discuss linkages between notions of Kenesseth Yisrael or the Shekhinah, the internality and externality of heart and soul, as well as the meaning of charity, or tsedakah, as these themes are developed by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (henceforth referred to as the RaShaZ) in his monumental work, the Tanya.  It is, then, my intention to apply this insight to a particular and significant problem facing the Jewish community today: namely, the difficulty of adequately funding Jewish schools such that all members of the community can afford to provide their children with a meaningful Jewish education.

II. One in One: Collectivity of Spirit

In the thirty­first chapter of the first section of the Tanya, the RaShaZ notes that as embodied beings we often feel distant from God in consequence of the many desires that inevitably distract us.  He explains that one must nonetheless recall that:

“There is within me a veritable part of G­d, which is found even in the most worthless of the worthless, namely, the divine soul with a spark of veritable G­dliness which is clothed in it and animates it, except that it is, as it were, in [a state of] exile.”

He continues that one must further reflect as follows: “it was not I who created myself” but God, who is good and does good.  If all that God does is good, it must be that this descent into exile on the part of the spark G­dliness “cannot be otherwise than… for the purpose of an ascent.”  That is, to be extricated from exile, liberated, and once again “absorbed in and united with” God.  He goes on to explain that this involves total occupation with the life of the spirit, binding thought, speech, and action to study and practice of the law.  Doing so restores the soul “to its source and root” where — and this will later become crucial — true “joy of heart” is evoked.

Building on this proposal, the RaShaZ continues as follows in the next chapter:

“Acting on the suggestion mentioned above… is a direct and easy way to attain the fulfillment of the commandment “Thou shalt love thy fellow as thyself”… all being equal and all having one Father… all Israelites are called real brothers by virtue of the source of their souls in the One G­d; only the bodies are separated. Hence in the case of those who give major consideration to their bodies while regarding their souls as of secondary importance, there can be no true love and brotherhood among them, but only [a love] which is dependent on a [transitory] thing.”

Here, the RaShaZ links the restoration of the soul, the divine spark, to its source in God to the realization of brotherly love.  It seems to me, however, that an adequate grasp of the nature of brotherly love demands further elucidation in its own right.  The RaShaZ seems to suggest that souls bear affinity with one another in the same way that siblings do.  Siblings share a parent in common and, on that account, common family membership in respect of which they are “one,” a single collective entity.  In this sense, their unity constitutes a sort of abstraction; each member of the family, in point of fact, subsists independently and autonomously.

Yet, the RaShaZ evidently wishes to articulate a notion of brotherly love considerably more substantial.  The unity obtaining among souls, for him, is no abstraction.  On the contrary, he contends that “only… bodies are separated;” among souls, there is no divide.  From this it follows that souls do not subsist as independent entities at all.  Brotherhood, in this far stronger sense, means identity.  As the RaShaZ suggests in the following paragraph, souls exist in a state of brotherhood so far as each instantiates equally “the community of Israel,” Kenesseth Yisrael.

It is brotherhood in this stronger sense, the sense in which brothers are not merely “one” but, as the RaShaZ puts it, “one in one,” that best explains why fulfilling the precept of loving others as we love ourselves is eased when we value the soul over the body.  If self­love involves the soul and not the body and if the former merely instantiates the community of Israel, the common soul, then self­love, in itself, is also love of the other; the distinction between self and other has already dissolved. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as “a soul,” an individuated spirit; what we call “a soul” is nothing other than the expression of a collective entity which admits of no internal distinction.

This notion appears again in the thirty­first of his holy epistles.  “All the souls of Israel,” he says there:

“Are regarded as the ‘limbs’ of the divine presence (Shekhinah ), which is called the            heart, as it is written ‘the Rock of my heart;’ and as it is written ‘and I will dwell amongst them’… Thus, according to these words and this truth — which it is not possible to explain properly in writing, it follows that the Shekhinah is referred to as ‘heart’ and the souls as ‘limbs’.”

In the first place, the metaphor of the heart deployed here deserves attention.  In his eighth epistle, the RaShaZ explains that what “in the phraseology of the Talmud” is referred to “as Shekhinah” is, “in the phraseology of the Zohar, is referred to as Kenesseth Yisrael.”  If, therefore, the Shekhinah is called “heart” relative to its constituent souls, or “limbs,” so too

Kenesseth Yisrael.  This connection serves to emphasize further the force of our interpretation of the thirty­second chapter of the Tanya as elaborated in the preceding paragraphs.  That chapter is often referred to as the “heart” of the text because the Hebrew letters used to designate the number thirty­two — lamed and beth — spell the word lev, which means heart.  In one sense, this is said to imply that the chapter is of central importance, that it contains certain ideas whence all the others follow.2  In a more profound sense, however, we see that it concerns the heart and speaks only of it.  The brotherly love that obtains among souls, the manner in which they are “one in one,” is their constitution of the heart, of Kenesseth Yisrael or the Shekhinah.

In the second place, however, the RaShaZ radicalizes to a significant degree the notion that souls exist as a collectivity.  He argues that when “all the souls are attached and bound together,” when love obtains between them, a redemptive state prevails: the Shekhinah is whole with itself.  When, however,  this unity is disrupted, when “hate and a division of hearts” obtain, the Shekhinah is said to exist in “a state of exile.”  In what sense is it exiled?  Well, if Kenesseth Yisrael is the totality of souls in their unity, it follows that their condition of disunity involves a negation of its very being.  To be in exile is, in a sense, to cease to be.  In this sense, we observe that the “rejoicing of heart” that takes place, as we saw earlier, when the soul returns to its root and source refers less to the particular happiness of “a soul” and more to the joy of the Shekhinah in itself as it is restored to being and in this way “redeemed.”


III. Internality and its Externalization

Thus far, we have discovered that the soul is not in essence an individual thing but is, rather, the expression, or ‘limb,’ of a collective entity known as Kenesseth Yisrael or the Shekhinah that is whole, “redeemed” in being, when unity obtains and “exiled” or negated in being when that unity is disrupted. Thus can we conceive the soul in two possible ways.

  1. From within: without regard to its particular individuality but instead to its essential collectivity.
  2. From without: with superficial regard to its particular individuality, as a ‘limb’ detached, as it were, from the body of which it is an indivisible part.

This distinction between the soul in its collectivity and the soul its individuality respectively, can be further articulated by reference to the thematic link between the Shekhinah and the image of the heart.  Just as the soul has its internality, its collective essence, and its externality, its particular and superficial existence, so too the heart.  Let me explain.

In the fourth of his holy epistles, the RaShaZ states that the internality of the heart, its pnimiyut, “transcends the faculty of reason.”  That is, it is above, or outside of, that which belongs to our private consciousness, our autonomous and individual identity.  He then goes on to explain that the internality of the heart can be invested, as it were, in material things.

Sometimes, he says: “There is an extremely important matter upon which the whole vitality of man hinges and  touches him as far as, and including the innermost point of the heart, and it causes him to perform acts and say things without any reason whatever.”

When this happens, he “has vested the aspect of the innermost point of his heart in…  the soiled garments of mundane matters and mundane desires, which are referred to as “Babylon.”   It is then, contends the RaShaZ, that the soul assumes a condition of exile; as Shimon bar Yohai is reported to have said: “[when] they were exiled to Babylon, and the Shechinah went with them (Megillah 29b).”

How should we interpret this exile? To begin with, let us keep in mind that because it involves the internality of the heart it involves, likewise, transcending, or stepping aside from reason; it involves forgetting ourselves.  But in what sense?  Is it that the working man simply loses consciousness of himself?  Hardly.  Is it not the case that when we are snared in our many desires and numerous cravings that we think only of ourselves, that we become acutely and exclusively aware of our own thoughts and our own feelings?  If we take to heart the account of exile developed in the preceding section, a more adequate account as to the nature of this self­forgetting comes to bear.

There, we found that the distinction between exile and redemption plays out in the opposition between individuation and collectivity.  Translating this model to the passage at hand, it turns out that forgetfulness of self must, perhaps paradoxically, involve a high degree of self­centeredness.  To be in exile is to forget oneself by becoming hyper­aware of oneself.  How is this so? Which self is being forgotten then? It is the internality of the soul and its true essence that is forgotten; we forget that we are not apart from others, that we are most ourselves in respect of that which we share.  Redemption, then, can be found the restoration of collectivity.

It is with this in mind that I would like to interpret the RaShaZ’s prescription for redemption as it appears in the fourth of his holy epistles.  Israel, he says “Shall be redeemed only through tzedakah, [charity], as it is written: “and her repatriates, through tzedakah .” It is written: “tsedek le­panav yehalekh.” Now, it should really say  ‘yelekh .’ But the idea is according to what is written: “My heart said for You ‘seek panay [my face],’” that is: ‘Seek the pnimiyut [the internality] of the heart.’”

As he goes on to explain, use of the more grammatically conventional ‘yelekh ’ would involve translating the quoted verse as follows “Tsedek shall go”  Yet, the unusual form actually used, ‘yehalekh ,’ “has a connotation of holakhah;” it is, in other words, stated in the causative.  The verse is more properly translated as “Tsedek shall make him go.”  Whither shall he go? “le­panav,” to his face.  That is, so the RaShaZ contends, to the pnimiyut , or internality, of his [2]heart.

If exile entails the fragmentation of the Shekhinah, the internality of the soul, its inner heart, then restoring the soul to its condition of wholeness tsedakah, charity, brings about a condition of redemption.  How does it accomplish this?  Why is it the case that when one shares what is earned by the “toil of his hands” the collective condition of his soul is restored, that there is a “manifestation of the general innermost point, and the emergence of the general Shekhinah from the exile and captivity?”  It seems to me that the answer is obvious.

We construe the work of our hands as we understand ourselves.  When we treat our assets as personal property, as a private estate, we think of them as something separate and distinct from what others have earned.  We do so because we think of ourselves as beings apart, as creatures alienated from one another.  That is, we think of property in this way because we are in exile, because the divine presence has become fragmented and scattered, divided from itself. When, in contrast, we think of ourselves as belonging to a spiritual collectivity we treat our assets accordingly, as belonging, likewise, to the community.  After all, we earn them only by investing the internality of our hearts in what we do; to treat them in a manner congruent with the internality of the heart and soul is to remember ourselves and cease forgetting.  It is, therefore, to rise up from the condition of exile find redemption.

It is the restoration of material collectivity that restores likewise the condition of spiritual collectivity.  This is the frame of mind, the mode of practice, we create when tsedakah is given and it is for this reason that tsedakah has the power to redeem.  Tsedakah dissolves the boundaries that divide us; it restores to the community of Israel what is its own.  In this way does tsedakah redeem the Shekhinah, the community of Israel, from its exile, its state of separation and restore it to a condition of unity and wholeness, to a condition of salvation. [3]


IV.  Equality in Equality: How to Think About Funding Jewish Education

If I may summarize the foregoing in a single statement, it is this: the soul is a community so that what the soul is responsible for producing is of the community and belongs to it.  If, indeed, that for which the soul is responsible — the material goods or the monies that are produced by its internality is invested in our work — belongs to the community of souls, that is, to the community, it is inconceivable that anybody dress, as the RaShaZ put it in the sixteenth of his holy epistles, in “fine apparel” and enjoy “family feasts, with meat and fish and all kinds of delicacies” while “a pauper needs bread for the mouths of babes, and firewood and clothes against the cold, and the like.”  Rather, it is ultimately upon us, so the RaShaZ teaches us — to create a communal state of affairs that is “shaveh be­shaveh,” a condition of “equality with equality,” of equality in spiritual and material matters alike.

There are a number of practical lessons — political and ethical alike — which one might derive from this insight.  I would like, however, to suggest just one.  We just observed that while others lack clothing and nourishment we are entitled to satisfy no more than our basic needs.  For the sake of argument, let us interpret this further.  In the fourth chapter of the Tanya, the RaShaZ teaches that the soul has three garments: action, speech, and thought.  These correspond to the active fulfillment of mitsvoth , the study of Torah, and the comprehension of Torah respectively. As he goes on to explain in the following chapter, it is by “mitsvoth performed in action and speech G‑d clothes the soul, and envelops it with His light from its head to its foot.”  He likewise explains there that when the Torah is comprehended, “divine wisdom is also within him, so that he envelops it” and it, in turn, fills him up.  In this way, he explains, is knowledge of the Torah “called the bread and food of the soul” that nourishes it and “becomes inner life for it.”  In brief, Torah and mitsvoth are the clothing and nourishment in respect of which nobody can be left without.

So how do we supply ourselves and the others in our community with this clothing and this nourishment?  Most concretely, it is through our schools.  As many involved in education are aware, however, one of the most significant obstacles to expanding the Jewish day school system is its cost.  Many of us struggle under the weight of spiralling tuition rates and there are many others who might otherwise send their children to Jewish schools to be nourished and clothed but who refrain from doing so due to the great expense involved.  The communal response to this problem has been rather unorganized on the whole and the consequence is that it is left to schools already working on extremely limited budgets to offer tuition breaks (or not), which further compromises their ability to meet the needs of the students entrusted to their care.  This is unconscionable.

If, as the RaShaZ teaches, the soul is a community and what it produces thus belongs to the community, if we are entitled only to our basic needs when others go “hungry” and “unclothed,” can we not suggest, at least, that we have a duty to establish a communal fund to fully subsidize day school tuition so that no Jewish child is left behind and so that the cost of preventing that tragedy does not fall upon educational institutions already struggling to stay afloat?  On the basis of this imperative which, it seems, the RaShaZ has implied, I propose the following:

  1. Let every member of the Jewish community regard the entire sum of his or her earnings

not as his or her own personal estate, but as belonging to the community.

  1. Let them deduct from these earnings only that which is actually required for maintaining a modest lifestyle and restore the rest to the community of Israel, to Kenesseth Yisrael.
  2. Let these resources not be managed privately and below the horizon of the community, let them not be dispersed in a disorganized fashion that benefits a few people in small ways for a short period of time. Let them, rather, but gathered together and collectively managed at the communal level with the creation of a large endowment that can assure a fundamental change in the way we fund Jewish education for everyone and for the generations to come.
  3. Let us demand that this campaign continue until such time as the principle is sufficiently large to ensure that every Jewish child can, every year, be “fed” and “clothed” from the assets it generates.

By thus treating the material resources generated by our investment of the internality of the soul in the “many waters” of our working lives, by treating them as communal goods and putting them toward communal ends, we restore them to a condition congruent with the collective character of the Jewish soul.  In this fashion, we lift the soul up from its condition of exile and separation, from the externality of the heart, and restore it to its internality: to its redemption in the wholeness and totality of Kenesseth Yisrael.  In this way we realize our spiritual and material redemption.




[1] This is not entirely true.  The 1929 law still in place when the Rebbe was arrested allowed for religious services and instruction within certain (draconian) limits.  However, it stipulated that “a religious society is a local association of believers at least 18 years of age          .”  In other words, the law refused to recognize membership on the part of minors in any religious association.  Therefore, it implicitly denied their right to practice religion within an institutional framework.  Strictly speaking, this would make the Rebbe’s underground heder school system — designed, as it was, for youth — illegal.

[2] The term pnimiyut is derived from the same root as panav ; in this case, we might translate the former as “inner facedness” or, more simply, internality. Cf. Likkutei Sihot. vol. 9. p. 156, n. 23. We may also note in passing the great structural similarity between this model of redemptive phenomena and the account of socialism as conceived by Marx in his early writings, where he discusses the problem of alienation.  Take his On the Jewish Question, for example.  There, he denounces the “dualism between individual life and species ­life,” between man insofar as he is an “individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community” and man insofar as he exists in “association” with others.  This division is what he calls “alienation.”  The task, so far as Marx explains it, runs as follows: “Only when the real, individual man re­-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species­ being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no  longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.”  Can we not observe in the restoration of individual ­being to species­being a strong echo of the above ­articulated relationship between the individual soul and the Shekhinah?

[3] To again point out the structural similarity between this interpretation of the RaShaZ’s teaching and the teaching of the early Marx, let us consider his view of commerce as it appears in the second part of his On the Jewish Question    : “Selling is the practical aspect of alienation… under the domination of egoistic need [man] can be active practically, and produce objects in practice, only by putting his products, and his activity, under the domination of an alien being, and bestowing the significance of an alien entity – money – on them… Money is the universal self­established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world – both the world of men and nature – of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him.” Thus, he says, is “the view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature.”  The solution? to abolish “the conflict between man’s individual­sensuous existence and his species­ existence” by abolishing private property.  Can we not, again, observe that Marx’s solution to the problem of alienation parallels the RaShaZ’s solution to the condition of separation and exile suffered by the Shekhinah?