You are what you learn

I have always felt that in learning Torah, once a person starts to earn a living and engage with wife and family,  enjoying what you learn is paramount. There is one invariant; Halacha. Each person must have a working knowledge of basic Halacha and should aim to revise this every now and again; yes, 30 days before a Chag.

Personally, I have always been captivated by  study of the Halachic process. I am roused when reading שאלות ותשובות especially when the Posek takes the trouble to map out his thoughts from fundamental sources through to his final decision. Pilpul and conjecture aka תורה לשמה—for the sake of it—was also gripping. some 30 years ago. Nowadays, unless it leads to Halachic import, I tend to look at it as an exercise in  עמלה של תורה more akin to an intellectual odyssey that may not lead to any change or understanding in Halacha.

During my school years, I was exposed to rudimentary Chassidus. I don’t think I was mature enough, emotionally or intellectually, to properly engage. The study of a Jewish metaphysical realm was parenthetical to my “needs” at that time. Perhaps it’s different  and more meaningful for others, even during those early and teenage years. I feel strongly, however, that it ought not be compartmentalised as compulsory curriculum unless one wants to engage—it could be a case of יצא שכרו בהפסדו.  Similarly, we have a tradition that Zohar and Kabbalah should not be studied until one has reached 40—the age of attaining בינה.  I imagine there are people who have “reached” 40 when they are 20, and other who will not have reached 40 even though they are 70. To each his or her own (are women allowed to learn Zohar, I don’t mean bits of Tzena U’Rena … I imagine they would be, if they were at the level of spiritual nourishment that requires it?)

I had never learned Mussar until I studied in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. I tried. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was an intensely personal introspection. One had to psyche oneself to be in the proper mood. I couldn’t understand why one would learn Mussar with a Chavrusa, a learning partner. To me, Mussar or Jewish Ethics was almost the type of study where the entire Beis Medrash should be enveloped in an eery silence.

Mussar was studied for half an hour a day, just before Ma’ariv and Dinner, except for Shabbos. There are many different styles of Mussar Seforim. There are those that take the severe admonishment line (which never appealed to me) and are others which were written by Rishonim themselves. More recent varieties, such as the quasi mussar approach of Michtav Me’Eliyahu were really a cross between Mussar and Jewish thought. I did enjoy studying כוכבי אור (not the sefer by R’ Nachman MiBratslav) by R’ Itzele Blaser (a famed student of R’ Yisroel Salanter) during Tishrei but I think this was because it was more of a Lomdishe Mussar Sefer where there was a great question and answer leading to a mussar message.  Others had a different approach, like Daas Tevunos from the Ramchal. I liked those, but didn’t feel they were hard-core Mussar seforim. Brisk had no place for Mussar. It felt that Mussar was unnecessary. If you needed to study ethics, it meant that your study of Shas was not proper.

I ended up abandoning Mussar after 6 months (I did gravitate to another Sefer called Ma’alos HaMidos) and started learning Sefer HaKuzari on my own. I know this raised eyebrows, but the Yeshivah were clever and one day an Israeli Chavrusa “appeared” and told me that he’d like to learn it with me. I appreciated that in as much as it helped me with vocabulary and I knew that the Yeshivah was tolerating my nuanced needs. I think that’s important in any Yeshivah. Too often Seder becomes an indoctrination of sorts.

Kuzari was good for my general knowledge, but I didn’t really feel confident with some of the answers in the sense that I could use them in the 21st Century. That was probably my fault. It was fascinating trying to get my head around Sechel HaPoel and Sechel HaNifal. I later discovered Maharal, and fell in love. It was written in a way which I could understand and all the hidden messages, such as 8 being higher than 7 and what that meant across Shas and Halacha was intriguing.

We have a link to Amshinov back in time, but they don’t write many Seforim. A few years ago a friend in Israel saw a short booklet put together by the Rebbe in Borough Park (not widely seen as THE Rebbe as distinct from the well known and renowned Amshinover Tzadik in Bayit Vegan). I read it, and I was astonished to see that the Amshinover Rebbeim, starting from the first Rebbe, R’ Ya’akov Dovid ז’ל said words that

There is only one book for Chassidus, and that is Sefer HaTanya. If there was only one Sefer left in my house it would be Sefer HaTanya. Everything else is subsumed by it

They were powerful words. I gave the book to R’ Groner ז’ל as he was very excited to read it. R’ Groner, whom I miss greatly, was a walking encyclopaedia. He told me everything I wanted to know about Amshinov through to a vivid description of the size of R’ Shimon’s Shulem’s nose ז’ל 🙂 Subsequently, I told R’ Groner to keep the book, and I’m glad I did.

Fast forward. My soul became inexorably attached to the Rav. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was my head that became intertwined. I discovered early on that the Rav knew Tanya like the proverbial back of his hand, as well as Likutei Torah from the Alter Rebbe. The Rav was a romantic (not personally, but in respect of his life memories). He was also unique in that he actually wrote and told you about his feelings and struggles. I love that candour. It only makes me pine to interact with him even more. It is one of my regrets. I remember when the first group of students from the YU Kollel came to Kerem B’Yavneh. The Rosh Yeshivah immediately began interrogating them so that they could relate the latest Chidushim from the Rav. One of the Rav’s best Talmidim (certainlywith respect to Psak as opposed to Philosophy) is R’ Hershel Schachter, the Posek of OU. I have downloaded and listened to many of R’ Hershel’s shiurim, and he is literally like a sprouting fountain that gushes forth with an enormous ידיעת התורה. I noticed that he too had studied Tanya and would quote it.

I don’t know any Tanya. I know some of the basics of Chassidus—very very basics—and it’s safe to say I’m an ignoramus. The Gaon’s prime Talmid also wrote a critically important and widely read Sefer, akin to Tanya, and apparently written as the Misnagdic equivalent, called Nefesh HaChaim. I have this at home, and read Rabbi Norman Lamm’s PhD thesis comparing the Tanya and Nefesh HaChaim.

My beautiful,  much beloved, and much missed cousin, R’ Ya’acov Yitzchak HaCohen Balbin ז’ל, whose soul was as pure and holy as I have ever come across, and to whom I dedicate this post less than a year after his sudden Petirah that he should have an Aliyos Neshoma and a Lichtige Gan Eden, was a Chosid of R’ Zalman Serebryanski ז’ל and despite having gone to live in the State of Israel some 30 years ago, still asked his difficult questions to R’ Groner ז’ל.  I well remember my father, myself and Ya’acov visiting R’ Groner, literally less than 48 hours before his Petirah and Ya’akov asking R’ Groner what was to be R’ Groner’s last Halachic question in this world. One year, Ya’acov bought me a copy of the Steinsaltz Tanya. Ya’acov’s son-in-law, somewhat of a Chabakooknik, is a Chosid of R’ Steinsaltz who was Mesader Kidushin at his wedding (I attended).

Yet, despite all of this, I can’t open Sefer HaTanya and I remain ignorant. Why?

Because there is this big sign at the back of the Shule at Yeshivah in Melbourne which (rightly or wrongly) bothers me to the depth of my soul. If it has a place, that sign should be in the Chasid’s heart. Having such a sign in a Shule (and in the Mesivta in the School my sons attended) let alone bellowing this out daily, simply turns me off.

Call it irrational, call me full of myself, call me whatever you want. I’m sure I’ve been called worse. But, these are the facts. I feel it, and I feel it deeply. I’d like to learn, as I feel it has become an important and accepted sefer.

I can’t. I feel negativity which I cannot erase. The marketing has gone mad and it is pervasive in the extreme.

Author: pitputim

I've enjoyed being a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia, as well as band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel and later in life at Machon L'Hora'ah, Yeshivas Halichos Olam.

12 thoughts on “You are what you learn”

    1. In Year 9 when it was part of the curriculum I was exposed to Tanya. I won’t say I learnt it because I remember almost nothing, and was completely turned off when I had a stand up argument in class with my teacher who insisted that Moshe Rabenu was a Lubavitcher.
      I have never been someone who has sought the meta physical.
      There are two reasons I considered learning Tanya over the last few years. Firstly because of the Rav (and to a lesser extend R’ Hershel Schachter) and secondly because of the gift from my cousin. My elder son told me that the best shiurim in Tanya he ever experienced were those given in Kerem B’Yavneh by R’ Mendel Blachman (an incredible Talmid Chacham). When I asked him why these shiurim were better, he told me that R’ Blachman taught it in a way that allowed what was being said to be related back to other Seforim, including of course the Maharal. He compared to Nefesh Hachaim and more. I am not sure there is anyone in Melbourne who has that type of ידיעה because they are taught Tanya in a way that makes it sound like it was ex-nihilo or transferred directly from a Malach. People in the know (and that’s definitely not me) can relate things to Tomer Devorah, and even the writings of the Magid of Mezeritch are greatly influenced by other Sefarim (there was a post on the net somewhere about this). I like to learn in context and with those who have an open and knowledgeable mind. I remember R’ Arel Serebryanski asking me twice (when I was very tipsy) to learn Tanya with him, a number of years ago. I responded that I would provided that he would learn R’ Kook’s Chazon HaGeula. At that point, he looked very uncomfortable and promptly decided I wasn’t worth the effort.

      Now, as I get older, I’d like to at least know what’s in this Sefer. I am unfortunately full of negative vibes, as stated in my article. Irrational, perhaps. Gayva/Nefesh HaBehamis, for sure, but most of all, it’s the truth. I realise people cannot understand how X implies Y in this instance, but they aren’t me (luckily for them).

      I don’t like being ignorant and I feel that people should be exposed to Tanya (and Nefesh HaChaim too!!)


  1. In addition to Joe’s comment, a few points to ponder:

    Why doesn’t the same sign that prevents you from learning tanya also prevent you from learning the LR biurim on Rashi?

    Isn’t your logic akin to someone saying I won’t learn Nefesh Hachaim because R Mordechai Willig says one shouldn’t eat lubavitch shechita?

    The LR in a letter says that R Chaim Volozener was influenced by Chasidus and therefore disagreed with the view of his teacher the Gra regarding tzimtzum, happy to find and provide source if this is of interest.

    I think one’s attitude should be to pursue truth, irrespective of other views that people out there may have.



    1. Hi Ock whoever you are 🙂

      I’ve always had a love affair with Meforshei Rashi. The only Sichos I learnt as a boy were Rashi Sichos with a shliach Yitchok Wolf. There is a kitzur of the LR’s pirushim on Rashi at the back of the Shule, and yes, I do have a look. But many a Chabadnik has told me that this isn’t chassidus 🙂

      You should appreciate that the sign does turn me (and many many others) off. You can choose not to accept that reality, but it is a reality. I have even left Shule (a different shule) when people start singing Yechi during Lecho Dodo. It’s a hergesh.

      On Tzimtzum and R’ Chaim Volozhiner and the Gra, Halevay that these types of things were bothering me and on my mind!


  2. Ock, after reading Isaac’s engaging reply I felt ashamed of my sharp response. Like most things which have a certain amount of truth in them it also has a certain amount of falseness. It’s entirely appropriate and desirable for people to to expand their intellectual horizons as they get older, and criticising him in those terms was a cheap shot.

    As for the Rebbe’s Rashi sichos: they’re much easier to dip into than the Tanya. Perhaps he feels uncomfortable studying with people he associates with the notorious sign at the back of the Yeshiva shule, and he was too delicate to say so.


    1. Joe, no problem. Your response wasn’t sharp. It was appropriate. Many simply don’t immediately understand that some can have this reaction. I’ve been told “come on get over it” many times. I don’t take that as people being disrespectful. I understand what they are saying. Unfortunately, they don’t understand what I am saying!


  3. If one has an interest in learning tanya, and one has a strong feeling to do this, at least in part due to the fact that one’s rebbe studied it, it seems to me incogrous to not do this because someone 200 years after the passing of the AR decided to put up a sign in shule.

    if one is looking for excuses, there are no shortages, shaarei tirutzim lo ninuloo, but if one is intellectual honesty to oneself, one’s mesora, one’s rebbe etc veda”l.

    I do recall a shmini atzeres farbrangen in yeshiva suka a year or 2 ago, when a kollel yungerman wanted to make a shiur in chasidus with you R Izack, and you said on condition that you also have a kevius with the yungerman in torah Harav Kuk, and the yungerman was mekabel, yet you backed out of the deal! I’ll be melamed zchus and say you had said one too many lechaims!

    a kosher un freilichen pesach!


    1. Hi Ock,
      The Rav is not my Rebbe. He would turn in his grave at the thought.
      You mention that it is two hundred years after the B’aal HaTanya. True enough. Would he recognise Chabad today?
      He davened very differently, didn’t have Yechidusen on minor matters, and didn’t see women. Using the distance between the B’aal HaTanya and the Meshichism rampant in the Yeshivah Centre in Melbourne (the son of the head of the Mesivta yells Yechi 3 times each day in the School Minyan) works both ways.

      It is presumptuous of you to assume that I am “looking for excuses”. I could say the same about your seeming whitewashing of the extremist meshichist trend in the Melbourne Yeshivah Centre.

      My level of intellectual honesty is unable to squash the negative vibes created by the Meshichism at the Yeshivah Centre in Melbourne. Is that a sin? Do you deny me that Hergesh.

      Your story of Shmini Atzeres is probably true, as is the fact that I probably had a few LeChaims. So what? The reality is as I wrote. You can’t erase it with a comment.


  4. Clearly, my point isn’t being expressed well enough.

    I’ll try again.

    If you respect the Baal Hatanya, R Soloveitchik etc, that should inspire you to learn Tanya. How the actions of meshichists or any other persuasion, has any bearing on this is beyond me.

    My point about shmini atzeres is simply in reference to the story you mentioned about R Arel, which I understood to mean that if a lubavitcher isn’t open enough to study R Kook, then one cant expect you should study tanya. The shmini atzeres farbrangen story shows that despite a lubavitcher being willing to study R Kook with you, you still declined to study tanya.

    have we now broken the record for the number of comments on your blog 🙂 ?!


    1. כל מקום שיש אמת, אין שלום. וכל מקום שיש שלום, אין משפט. ואיזהו משפט אמת, שיש בו שלום, הוי אומר זה הביצוע

      The sign was meant to achieve ביצוע, but it failed.


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