Kheper Home | Kabbalah | Topics Index | New | Search

Rabbi Schnuer Zalman and Chabad Hassidism

Lurianic Kabbalah

One of the most important Jewish mystical thinkers of the last few centuries was the Polish Kabbalist Rabbi Schnuer Zalman (1747­1813), a follower, a generation removed, of the internal link Baal Shem Tov and founder of the Chabad (named after the first letter of the three "intellectual" sefirot ­ Hokhmah, Binah, and Daat) or Lubavitcher (after the town of Lubavitch in Poland where it originated) sect of internal link Hassidism.  His most important work is a long treatise known as the Tanya ("That which has been revealed"), full of religious, Kabbalistic, and psychological material.

Active verses Passive Meditation in the teachings of Rabbi Zalman

The Cosmology of the Tanya

Rabbi Zalman presents a simpler cosmology than that of  Kabbalists like internal link Cordovero and internal linkLuria, uniting the world of internal link Atzilut with the internal link En Sof, and identifying the physical reality with the World of internal link Asiyah.   In fact, the world of Atzilut is described in a manner very much like the Nirguna Brahman of similiar paradigm Indian Monism.  It is

"...beyond the intelligence, comprehension and understanding of a created intellect, because the chohmah, binah, and da'at [the higher three Sefirot; the Divine Intellect] of the blessed En Sof are united with it therein in perfect unity, a profound and wonderful unity which infinitely excels, in degree and form, that which is found in the world of Beriah..."   [Tanya p.191].

The world of internal link Yetzirah meanwhile is the region of angels, which, Rabbi Zalman writes

 "...have no freedom of choice, and their fear and love (of God) are their natural instincts...Therefore  the quality of the tzaddikim [Righteous holy men] is superior to theirs, for the abode of the souls of the righteous is in the world of Beriah, whereas the abode of the angels is in the world of Yetzirah.         [Tanya p.187].

Chabad Psychology

Rabbi Zalman developed a sophisticated psychology.  He taught that human nature is two­fold.  Man consists of a Divine soul, or nefesh elokit, which is a spark from God above, from the Divine Mind or Supreme Wisdom (Hokhmah Ila'ah), and the inferior or Animal soul, Nefesh behamit, which is derived from the lower cosmic nature or husks" internal link (klippot) and is the source of base "animal" passions such as anger, pride, lust, frivolity, boasting, idle talk, sloth, and melancholy.

The Divine soul is modelled after the arrangement of the internal link Sefirot or Divine attributes.  Just as the Sefirot are divided into three higher and seven lower, so the Soul is divided into two categories, Intellect (sekhel) and Emotion (middot).  The Intellect is itself three­fold, consisting of internal linkHokhmah (Wisdom), internal linkBinah (Understanding), and internal linkDaat (Knowledge).

Rabbi Zalman associates the "Animal" soul with the left side of the heart, the emotions with the right side of the heart, and the intellect ­ as with modern materialism and holism ­ with the brain [Tanya p.31]; thus suggesting a somatic psychology.  But he does not develop a theory of psychic centres (similiar paradigmchakras) like similiar paradigmTantra postulated.

In many ways, R. Zalman's psychology can be compared to Plato's and his successors', although there is obviously no causal relation between the two.  The nous or "rational soul" can be equated with the sekhel or intellect, although the former is not sub­divided like the latter; the thymos with the middot or emotions, and  the epithymia or "irrational soul" or physical desires with the the Lower or "Animal" soul.  And whilst Plato did not conceive the epithymia as negative, later the Hermeticistsimiliar paradigmNeoplatonists, and similiar paradigmChristian mystics spoke of the "passions" or "the irrational soul" in a very negative manner, seeing them as obstacles to the spiritual path.

 Indeed, with Zalman we have a profound psychology, but a psychology which was never able to break free of its religious­sectarian milieu.  Thus, Hassidic psychology always remained inextricably interwoven with religious doctrine.

Chabad Psychology and Psychoanalysis

The psychoanalyst David Bakan argues that Freud was influenced, perhaps indirectly, by Kabbalah.   Although Bakan does not seem to mention hassidic thought, there does seem to be a parallel here.  R. Zalman's concept of tension and battle between the intellectual "Divine Soul" and the instinctual "Animal Soul", and the need to subjugate the latter to the former, strongly recalls Freud's antagonism of Ego and Id, or Conscious and Unconscious, and the idea of the Ego as making Conscious what was previously Unconscious.


The Lubavitcher Sect of Hassidism

Nowadays, the Lubavicher sect Rabbi Zalman founded constitute the largest surviving sect of Hassidism.  They are very piously religious, and have their headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, where they make up a strong and very traditionalist ethnic subcommunity, and constitute an important sect of orthodox Judaism.

 internal linkThe Purpose of the Chassidic Rebbe

Chassidism and Chassidic Thought - a list of resources.  Comprehensive.

Jewish Mysticism
Jewish Kabbalah
the Sefer Zohar
Lurianic Kabbalah
Lurianic Cosmology
Baal Shem Tov

Kabbalah main page
main page

page history

page uploaded 28 May 1998
last revised 6 June 1999