A recent Amazon search on Hasidic tales returned 231 books. These tales of righteous Hasidic leaders are meant to make a point, tell a story, inspire the listener, and much more. A problem is that some of these stories are conflicting and self-contradictory. When used as a biographical vehicle, these stories are often more hagiography than biography.

In Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady: The Origins of Chabad Hasidism (Brandeis University Press, ISBN 1611686776), author Immanuel Etkes, Professor of Modern Jewish History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, has written a masterful and brilliant biography of the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement.

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The nine chapters focus on R’ Shneur Zalman’s adult life, with the narrative starting from his ascent as a Hasidic leader, ending with his death fleeing with the Russian Army from Napoleon:

  1. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady’s Rise to Leadership
  2. A Leader of Hasidim
  3. Between Center and Periphery
  4. Sefer Shel Beinonim: The Book of Average Men
  5. On the Front Line against the Mitnagdim: Excommunications and Prohibitions
  6. At the Front versus the Mitnagdim: The First Imprisonment
  7. At the Front against the Mitnagdim: The Second Arrest
  8. Zaddikim as Human Beings: The Conflict with Rabbi Abraham of Kalisk
  9. Between Napoleon and Alexander

What makes this biography unique is that Etkes uses documents written by R’ Shneur Zalman’s himself. This is in addition to other historical documents and letters related to him. Etkes is able to create a critical analysis, yet not lose focus of the human element.

A man of legendary talents and one of the greatest Jewish minds of the last few hundred years, R’ Shneur Zalman’s genius was matched by his leadership and organizational skills. This led to Chabad becoming the largest Hasidic group in Eastern Europe at the time.

With these documents, Etkes is able to create an insightful biography, more of an empirical tale of a legendary rabbi, than simply a fanciful Hasidic tale. These letters have rich and detailed information, and in the hands of a scholar like Etkes, are an invaluable tool. Ironic as it is, Etkes’ conclusion and that of the storytellers are the same.

The book details the struggles the nascent Hasidic movement faced. This was initially via protests from the opponents of Hasidism, known as Misnagdim. Once the Hasidic movement solidified, it found itself in a sort of identity crisis on how the movement should grow and continue.

Etkes writes that contrary to common belief, the early Hasidic leaders didn’t address the masses. Their intended audience were men with knowledge of rabbinic literature, especially those who attended yeshivas.

The challenge of the leaders were to find a way to transmit their message to the less educated masses. This was a special challenge for R’ Shneur Zalman, given that Tanya, his magnum opus, contained significant amounts of Kabalistic thought.

Chapter 4 is the densest and most difficult chapter in the book, not coincidentally that it is about Tanya. To that, R’ Shneur Zalman was opposed by a number of his colleagues who felt that Tanya simply provided too much Kabalistic information to the masses, who simply could not comprehend the profundities of the topic. But R’ Shneur Zalman was convinced that the basic ideas of Kabbalah were a vital foundation for a Jewish person’s service of God. He also assumed that not all of the members of his community could master the book easily, to which he established groups for the study of Tanya.

Chapter 5-7 detail R’ Shneur Zalman’s dealings with the Misnagdim, the group opposed to the movement, who banned and persecuted them. This conflict with the Misnagdim landed him in Russian jails on two occasions, being accused of spying and misuse of public funds. He was interrogated numerous times in jail, and Etkes uses Russian transcripts to provide an insights into what transpired.

It should be noted that Tanya, which was published in 1797, was the first Hasidic work that offered a detailed and comprehensive set of instructions in the ways of worshiping God. The book, unique in its day, served as a comprehensive and detailed guide to many Hasidim, not just those of Chabad.

R’ Shneur Zalman wrote a letter to a Rabbi Moshe Meizeles while fleeing from the French army explaining his opposition to Napoleon. This illustrious letter is legendary within the Chabad movement. Etkes attempts to prove that the letter was not written R’ Shneur Zalman, but leave it as a question who the actual author was.

This is an English translation of the original Hebrew version published in 2011. The English version is missing, for reasons not made clear, a number of chapters. Chapter 5 of the Hebrew edition is devoted to a discussion of R’ Shneur Zalman’s view of the relation between mysticism and the normative patterns of the service of God. A topic of such importance would have been a valuable part of this book.

Etkes has written a remarkable work that gives the reader a vivid presentation of the times, and understanding of this extraordinary man. He closes the book with the observation that R’ Shneur Zalman’s influence continues to this very day primarily from his Hasidic ethos that he created and shared, an ethos embodied in this writings and in the living tradition that have come down among his Hasidim from generation to generation.