‘The Basics of Chassidus’ from Sichos in English is an invaluable explication of Chassidic thought and guide to a well-lived life
By: Yaakov Ort
My wife and I have been blessed over the past 35 years to live in vibrant Jewish communities in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; Monsey, N.Y.; and now Jerusalem, Israel, where we have had the opportunity to get to know many well-educated spiritual seekers with little or no background in Jewish teachings who have been interested in learning more about Judaism in general and Chabad in particular. The single most frequent question that we’ve been asked in one form or another is:
“Is there a single book you can recommend that can give me an overview of what you guys believe?”
The answer has always been “Sorry. I’m afraid there isn’t.”
Well, now there is, and it’s The Basics of Chassidus: A Comprehensive Anthology of Chassidic Thought, (Sichos in English, 2022) a monumental new presentation of the fundamental principles of Chassidic teachings published by Sichos in English on 11 Nissan of this year, in honor of the 120th anniversary of the birth of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
In Chabad: Its Origins, Principles and Purpose the first volume of a multi-volume series, Rabbi Nissan Dovid Dubov, director of Chabad of Wimbledon, England, and an acclaimed teacher of Chassidism, and Rabbi Naftali Hertz Pewzner, noted Chassidic scholar and professor of Jewish philosophy and mysticism at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J., have mined hundreds of volumes of Chassidic writings to present the first comprehensive guide in English to pnimiyut haTorah, the inner dimensions of Torah, in great clarity, depth and detail.
While there are a number of volumes that admirably present a general overview of Chassidic thought, like The Philosophy of Chabad by Rabbi Nissan Mindel (Kehot, 2012 ed.), Chassidic Dimensions by Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet (Kehot, 1990) and Wisdom to Heal the Earth by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman (Ezra Press and Chabad.org, 2018), there are no English-language works that provide a comprehensive presentation of these teachings. That is not surprising, as the authors of the Basics of Chassidus note in their introduction, since this until not too long ago was a shortcoming in any language:
As the Rebbe wrote in 5731 (1971): “In Talmudic subjects, there are several compositions which organize information alphabetically or according to topic. More so in halachah, there are numerous such collections that summarize entire areas of Jewish law. Even in the mystical teachings of Kabbalah there are several such works; only Chassidus lacks such a presentation. Chabad emphasizes that one should truly comprehend the concepts of Chassidus, so that they can be integrated within one’s entire psyche, yet I have not seen even an initial effort in creating such a work.”
As a result, the Rebbe appointed the venerated Torah scholar Rabbi Yoel Kahn to supervise the compilation of Sefer HaArachim–Chabad, a nine-volume, alphabetically ordered encyclopedia of Chassidic thought. Exhaustive in its depth and scope, and an invaluable resource to advanced students, Sefer HaArachim provided the intellectual foundations for The Basics of Chassidus, and motivated the staff of Sichos in English working under the direction of Rabbi Shmuel Avtzon to create this groundbreaking series.
With the earnest desire to further perpetuate the Rebbe’s vision for Chassidus to be presented in an organized structure, the present series of The Basics of Chassidus was conceived. The ambitious goal of this project is to present to the English readership a first of its kind, a comprehensive and organized collection of Chassidus Chabad. In recent years, there has been a tremendous expansion of the study of Chassidus in English and this work is set to enhance the learning experience of the novice and veteran student alike.
The success of this work in providing an essential primer to Chassidic thought and practice can be greatly attributed not just to the volume’s content, but even more importantly, to its narrative structure since an alphabetical, encyclopedic format would not have served the volume’s purpose of teaching Chassidus to an eager new audience.
Instead, the book’s 12 chapters take the reader step by step through the history, the concepts and the ultimate purpose of Chassidic teachings. The table of contents provides the reader with an unusually detailed summary of the book’s flow and topics. With an excellent index and glossary, Basics of Chassidus can be read cover-to-cover and also can serve as a reference work for those in search of an in-depth understanding of the topics.
Upcoming volumes in the series will cover the study of Divinity and the process of creation known as Seder Hishtalshelut; the spiritual dynamics related to Torah, mitzvahs and the Jewish People; how the daily life as a Jew is illuminated by Chassidus; and other topics as well.
The publication of The Basics of Chassidus could not be more timely. Amid all the challenges and crises besetting the contemporary world, Jewish men, women and children will gather in synagogues around to world this Sunday, June 5, and stand together as one to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments in celebration of Matan Torah (“the Giving of the Torah”) on the holiday of Shavuot, marking the continuous impact of that day more than 3,300 years ago when G d gave the Torah to the Jewish People at Sinai.
Guided by the insights of the world’s foremost Chassidic masters, we have come to understand that Mattan Torah was and is about far more than G d providing a blueprint and instruction manual for a well-lived life, as essential as that is.
Matan Torah, they teach us, is the day that G d changed everything.
The everything that changed at Sinai was the relationship between G d and the souls and spiritual and material worlds that He is continuously creating. Mattan Torah was a revolutionary change in G d’s presentation of the divine essence in the world, the soul dimension of yechidah that is the subject of chapter 5 of The Basics of Chassidus. It was a revelation that created the possibility of a quantum expansion of human consciousness and the emergence of a Messianic era.
Matan Torah created the potential for G d to have an eternal dwelling place with us in this world—where through the study of the Torah and the performance of its mitzvot we will usher in an era of peace, harmony and revealed G dliness that every human culture envisions, and that every decent person wants, but that few know how to achieve.
An excellent new place to learn how we together can change the world for the good, once and for all, is by learning and teaching The Basics of Chassidus.
From the Table of Contents
Here is a summary from the table of contents to whet the reader’s appetite for its wisdom:
Chapter 1: Foundations. The book begins by pointing out that the contextual origins of Chassidus are found in Judaism’s most fundamental principles, and shows how ideas such as the cognitive knowledge of G d, recognition of His Oneness, and the Sinaitic instruction of purpose are integral components of Chassidus’s general framework. An introductory discussion of these primary Jewish ideals provides the background to understanding the nature of Chassidus.
Chapter 2: Multi-Layered Torah. The wisdom of Chassidus is an element of the Torah’s inner dimension. This classiﬁcation leads to an examination of the various dynamics within the Torah and an identiﬁcation of their underlying cohesive theme. The interplay between these many elements provides the context for understanding the gradual revelation of the Torah’s mystical arena, the root origin of Chassidus.
Chapter 3: Chassidus. The advent of Chassidus brought a new ﬂavor to Jewish life and practice. An in-depth look at the Baal Shem Tov’s life, teachings, and primary goals provides important insights into what Chassidus is all about. Clarifying its role in the lead-up to Mashiach’s arrival, we can appreciate the traditional emphasis of “bringing Chassidus outwards.”
Chapter 4: Chabad. The development of Chassidus saw the emergence of the intellectually-themed Chabad approach. A discussion of its virtue clariﬁes its place within the world of Chassidism and brings to light some of Chassidus Chabad’s primary themes. Additionally, an overview of the history and contribution of each of the seven Chabad Rebbeim provides a better understanding of the movement and its mission.
Chapter 5: Yechidah. To properly deﬁne Chassidus requires an exploration of the soul’s true nature. Identifying the G dly soul’s various levels clariﬁes the purpose of the Torah’s numerous dimensions. The parallel between Chassidus and the soul-dimension of yechidah offers extraordinary insight into the enigmatic profundity and accessibility of Chassidus.
Chapter 6: Mashiach. The righteous leadership of Mashiach will characterize the Future Redemption. Understanding Mashiach’s role and his unifying “yechidah-effect” provides important insight into the centrality of this fundamental Jewish ideal. The connection between Chassidus and Mashiach is also clariﬁed, contributing signiﬁcant instruction on how Chassidus is meant to be experienced.
Chapter 7: Achdus Hashem. A broad, multi-stage discussion explores and emphasizes the relevance of the fundamental Chassidic principle of absolute Divine Oneness. The resulting recognition of the extent of G d’s constant engagement with our world illuminates Chassidus’s G d-centered outlook.
Chapter 8: Avodas Hashem. Chassidus is primarily a path of the service of G d. An exposition of this approach deﬁnes what it means to serve G d, maps out the internal human struggle, and goes through some of Chassidus’s basic methods of successful progress. The unique tools provided by Chassidus, its study, attitudes, and practices further crystallize this dynamic system.
Chapter 9: Rebbe and Chassid. The unique relationship between a Rebbe and his followers stems from the unique soul-nature of the Jewish spiritual leader. Exploring this idea, we ﬁnd clarity in the role of a Rebbe and insight into his life-changing inﬂuence. The Chassid’s contribution to the relationship is also explained, providing informational guidance in cultivating this fascinating bond.
Chapter 10: Dirah BeTachtonim. A primary teaching of Chassidus is its insight into the purpose of existence. An in-depth discussion facilitates appreciation of this purpose and the manner in which it is meant to be accomplished. This discussion provides a revolutionary perspective on the substance of our physical world and its future transformation into a home for G d.
Chapter 11: The Personal Mission. The basic principles of Chassidus discussed in previous chapters bring vivid clarity to the individual’s mission on earth. These messages guide the person in their responsibility to inﬂuence their environment while also advancing one’s personal growth. The dynamics of these roles are clariﬁed, along with empowering motivation for applying this life-changing wisdom.
Chapter 12: Our Generation. Our current era provides timely relevance to the internalization and application of Chassidus. As we stand upon the threshold of Mashiach’s arrival, it is we who are tasked with completing the process of welcoming G d into our world. This agenda is central to Chassidus, and engaging in this effort provides the truest expression of its ideals.