Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Shais Taub - Approaching Tanya


A Simple Jew asks:

What lessons have you learned about how to best approach learning Tanya over the years you have spent learning it? How do you feel that your understanding has developed since the first time you picked up this sefer?

Rabbi Shais Taub answers:

You knew this question would be too irresistible for me to pass up. As you know, I am pretty fanatic about Tanya. As an aside, I 'd like to mention that I think the reason why I have spent so much time trying to understand this particular book is because of it's structure. The structure of Tanya blows me away. Contrary to what seems to be an unspoken but popular misconception, Tanya is not just a compilation of chasidic ideas. Indeed, Tanya is the Torah she'b'ksav chasidus. But Torah she'b'ksav does not mean cholent. It's not like the Alter Rebbe just went and crammed in as much chasidus as he could fit into one small book. Tanya has a structure. Tanya is an orderly system that takes you step-by-step through the inevitable challenges faced by one seeking to be of better use to his Maker and his fellows. In my opinion, Tanya is not a book. It's a program.

Which leads me to answer your first question...

What lessons have I learned about how best to approach Tanya? Very simple. Never forget the purpose of the book. The Alter Rebbe wrote Tanya because he wanted to provide a substitute for one-on-one meetings with him where you could pour out your heart and then receive guidance tailor-made for your unique situation. How do I know that this is why the Alter Rebbe wrote Tanya? Because that's what he says in his Introduction. Tanya is a face-to-face meeting with a spiritual master who listens and gives guidance to each and every one of his followers. Tanya is not an encyclopedia of Chasidus. It is a transcript of your yechidus with the Alter Rebbe. It follows an orderly and natural progression. The questions you're asking the Alter Rebbe later in the book are on a higher level than the questions you were asking at the beginning. There is a real growth that you can see happening to the one to whom the Alter Rebbe is speaking.

So, whenever I study or teach Tanya, I always keep in mind, "How did we get from there to here? What was I supposed to have done in the last chapter that has made me ready to hear what the Alter Rebbe is now telling me in this chapter?"

I didn't start studying Tanya until I was 22. I learned Perek Aleph with my cousin one Friday night while I was visiting him at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I couldn't figure out if I was a tzaddik, a rosho or a beinoni. The next day, after shul, we were at Rabbi Yona Matusof's house, so I asked Rabbi Matusof. He didn't give me a straight answer, which annoyed me.

Anyway, when I went to yeshiva, I started learning Tanya on my own and more in-depth. I remember once sitting at a farbrengen at Hadar HaTorah where the mashpia, Rabbi Wircberg, was quizzing the bocherim about the general concepts of each perek. He was saying stuff like, "18 is ahavah mesuteres, 29 is timtum halev, 32 is ahavas yisrael." I couldn't catch all of it. Only some of it sounded familiar. What impressed me was that he was going in order, chapter by chapter. It suddenly dawned on me that this book, although it had no Table of Contents, was highly structured. I was also ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that (get a load of this) EVERYONE who studied Tanya since they were kids, ALL know what each perek is about and how one perek connects to the next. I felt extremely inadequate.

A few years later, I was married already and I was teaching in mesivta. One Yud Tes Kislev, I was all alone and I made a hachlata. I decided, "Enough already. I want to understand the structure of Tanya! I want to know what each perek DOES and how it brings us to the next perek. What chapters are thematically grouped and why does one group come before the next? I am going to make a MAP of Tanya." So, I sat down and started working feverishly. I read everything I could get my hands on that would explain the flow and structure of Tanya. Of course, there was the Tzemach Tzedek's Kitzur of Tanya but I also read everything else I could find. I would comb through Shiurim B'Sefer HaTanya looking for the little introductions at the beginnings of the chapters that would explain how we got to this chapter from the last chapter. Also, particularly helpful was Nissan Mindel's introduction to the English translation of Tanya. There, he lays it all out as far as the structure of the book.

Anyway, I worked on this "map" of Tanya, which was really just my handwritten notes which I later typed up on the computer. I was finished by Chof-Daled Teves, the Alter Rebbe's yahrzeit which was five weeks from the time that I had started. I didn't sleep much during that time.

Well, eventually the map was published by Kehos. I had to re-edit it a little bit and of course, all of the graphic design elements needed to be constructed, but basically, the whole map was done between Yud-Tes Kislev and Chof-Daled Teives, 5763 (the winter of 2003). I also had to make one major structural change in the map which was based on a comment by R' Yoel Kahan. The way I had the map was that 33 and 34 begin the theme of Moshiach which is continued until 37. R' Yoel said that 33 and 34 are a continuation of the PREVIOUS group of chapters, 26-31, which speak about joy. The fact that chapter 32 interrupts the flow is precisely that, an interruption, added later by the Alter Rebbe, but the theme begun in 26 really continues until 34.

A couple of years ago, the JLI (Jewish Learning Institute) asked me if I could turn the map into the basis for a curriculum on Tanya. Of course, I was very excited to take on the project. The way I devised the course was to really try to bring out that although we cannot possible do justice to Tanya in 6 weeks, we CAN give you a feel for its structure in that amount of time. Each week, the course presents another phase of development. There's a certain closure at the end of each lesson where the person feels, "Now I've got it." Then, they go out and try to live perfectly with that information alone and they hit a wall. The come back next week desperate for another meeting with the Alter Rebbe because they need the next piece of advice to get them through the next phase. It's really neat watching students go through the steps of Tanya like that. And the most important thing is that they achieve this growth by going through the Tanya IN ORDER. I think that sometimes, we do a disservice to our students when we present them with "themes" in Tanya. We try to pick out all the chapters from all over Tanya that mention one concept and then put them all together and teach them. That's like playing a symphony for someone by first playing them all of the F's and then all of the E's and so on.

Just the other day, someone told me that 14,000 students all over the world are currently taking the JLI course on Tanya and that this is the biggest course in Tanya ever. It's really exciting to think of all these thousands of Jews who are going to have tasted what it's like to really live with the Tanya. I'm fully expecting an all out revolution to come from this.

Now, I'll try to answer your second question.

How do you feel that your understanding has developed since the first time you picked up this sefer?

The more I learn Tanya, the more I discover about it that I completely don't understand. The Rebbe Rashab said that our understanding of Tanya is like a goat looking at the moon. All I can say is that, they very little bit of Tanya that I do understand (or that I think I understand) has changed my life and helped me to give other people the tools to change their lives as well.


8 Comments:

At December 3, 2008 at 11:14:00 AM EST, Anonymous chabakuk elisha said...

Thank You Rabbi Taub!

 
At December 3, 2008 at 1:42:00 PM EST, Blogger chanie said...

I learned Tanya from about age 15, and by no means do I know it like Rabbi Taub thought everyone did....nor do my Lub-born friends know it that well.

 
At December 3, 2008 at 2:53:00 PM EST, Blogger tea mad hatter said...

what little i have tried to learn i have not managed to fathom nevermind internalise. i find it very abstract (for me) and do not have the niggla knowledge i feel is needed as a background to root the concepts properly. it seems to me to resonate with Derech Hashem.

 
At December 3, 2008 at 9:54:00 PM EST, Anonymous Yishai said...

To analogize, Rebbe Nachman's Likutei Moharan can be difficult to understand, but we have Reb Nosson's Likutei Tefilot (Prayer lessons, http://www.breslov.org/bookstore/prayer/the-fiftieth-gate-volume-1/prod_10.html), which puts Likutei Moharan's main ideas into easily understandable prayers, and Likutei Eitzot (Advice Lessons, available online at http://www.breslov.org/torah/pdf/Advice.PDF) which collects all the most practical and easy to understand passages in Likutei Moharan into one book. More recently, Rabbi Greenbaum of Azamra.org put together The Essential Rebbe Nachman, which puts a lot of (mostly) easy to understand passages together, providing a very accessible survey of the Rebbe's main ideas and stories (http://www.azamra.org/Product_pages/essential.htm).

Is there anything similar based on the Tanya, or other major Chabad works? This would be helpful for those of us (including me) that have difficulty understanding Tanya! If not, will someone please come up with one? Are you listening, Rabbi Tal Zwecker? :o)

 
At December 3, 2008 at 10:37:00 PM EST, Blogger Menashe said...

I think R' Taub's point is that although several of these seforim do exist, they defeat the underlying purpose of structured growth envisioned by the alter rebbe.

Ironically the tanya was specifically written so that the poshute yidden would understand, at least on some level.

 
At December 5, 2008 at 12:03:00 AM EST, Anonymous Yishai said...

Thanks, Menashe -- you're right. If Rabbi Taub's map is a way to capture this growth, why not make a bigger version of the map that has more detailed text, making it even more helpful for beginners? Just an idea.

Follow up question for Rabbi Taub: You end your response by saying Tanya has changed your life and the lives of others. How as a practical matter has it changed your life? What do you differently, or how do you think/pray/meditate/interact with others differently?

 
At December 5, 2008 at 12:44:00 AM EST, Anonymous Shais said...

Yishai,

Great question. I made a pretty bold claim and I should have to back it up. So, how has Tanya changed my life? Where do I even begin?

One, it changes the way I see reality. The whole system for seeing everything in terms of kedusha and sitra achra gives me a mindfulness and sensitivity to just about everything I do.

The chapters on simcha (26-34) has definitely saved my skin countless times.

Ch. 32 changed the way I see a Jew.

Ch. 37 was the chapter that won me over to Tanya the first time. The first time I learned 37 it literally blew my mind. The whole concept of the actual MECHANICS of HOW we bring moshiach made the concept of moshiach so real and tangible to me.

Of course, 41-50 has given me what to meditate on. The first time I read and did the meditation in Ch. 46, I broke into tears and still do sometimes.

I could go on and on.

 
At December 5, 2008 at 12:05:00 PM EST, Anonymous Yishai said...

Thank you, Rabbi Taub -- that is actually very inspiring and motivating. If you do feel like going on and on, feel free!

 

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