Heresy accusations have a way of returning with a vengeance. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch was known by some as a heresy hunter. He harshly attacked historians such as R. Zechariah Frankel and Hirsch’s one-time protege Heinrich Graetz. He even attacked as heresy an essay by the halakhist, R. David Tzvi Hoffmann. In an ironic historical twist, one of R. Hirsch’s essays was attacked as heretical (or, implausibly, a forgery) in the Slifkin Torah-Science Affair a few years ago.
A recent debate in an educational forum (link) about the propriety of teaching kabbalah in yeshiva high schools led to a debate over the theological soundness of kabbalah and, in particular, the founding treatise of Chabad Chassidus, the Tanya. This debate about the Tanya is hardly new. Indeed, the charges were first raised by none other than the Vilna Gaon. (Note that R. Eliyahu of Vilna is also known as the Gra and Vilna Gaon. R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi is also known as the Alter Rebbe and Ba’al Ha-Tanya.)
After an impostor posing as the Vilna Gaon’s son claimed that his “father” had reversed his negative evaluation of Chassidus, the elderly sage issued a letter in 1796 denying a change of heart. After the authenticity of this letter was questioned, the Vilna Gaon in 1797 issued another letter detailing his problems with the movement. The letter was circulated and published the next year in the Slutzker Maggid’s book and many times since. I take it from Mordechai Willensky’s Chassidim U-Misnagdim (Mossad Bialik, 2nd ed. vol. 1 p. 187ff.). In the middle of his list of accusations against Chassidim, written in flowery rabbinic Hebrew, the Vilna Gaon states (p. 188, in loose translation):
דור מה רמו עניו, ומילין לצד עלאה מללו: אלה אלקיך ישראל, כל עץ וכל אבן, ומגלים פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה בפסוק: ברוך כבוד ה׳ ממקומו, ובפסוק: ואתה מחיה את כולם. הוי על הרום הרעים שבהם שבדו מלבם משפט חדש ואולפין חדת, ושתו תלמידים הבאים אחריהם, ושם שמים מתחלל על ידיהם…
Oh how the generation lifted its eyes and spoke words directed above: “This is your god, Israel” (Ex. 32:8), every tree and rock. They reveal the Torah contrary to law in the verse: “Blessed is the glory of God from His place” (Ez. 3:12) and in the verse: “And you preserve them all” (Ne. 9:6).
As Willensky points out in his footnotes, these are accusations of heresy. The Vilna Gaon charges Chassidim with believing in panentheism, that God is present in everything, even inanimate objects. The Tanya (2:Yichud Ve-Emunah:1) states that God is present in inanimate objects and in this next chapter explains Ne. (9:6) similarly. It also explains (1:42) Ez. (3:12) in this manner.
It is not clear how the Vilna Gaon knew the contents of the as-yet unpublished Tanya. Historians suggest he saw an unpublished draft or an early printing. It is irrelevant because his understanding of Chabad philosophy was confirmed by the Ba’al Ha-Tanya. In an undated letter, first published in 1857 and then many times since, the Ba’al Ha-Tanya explains his philosophical disagreement with the Vilna Gaon.
The following is from his letter (Willensky, vol. 1 pp. 200-201, also in loose translation):
ולפי הנשמע אין במדינות ליטא מי שירום לבבו שלא לבטל דעתו מפני דעת הגאון החסיד ולאמר בפה מלא אין בפיהו נכונה ח״ו, כ״א במדינות הרחוקות כתוגרמא ואיטלייא ורוב אשכנז ופולין גדול וקטן. ובזאת חפצתי באמת, ובפרט בענין האמונה אשר לפי הנשמע במדינותינו מתלמידיו אשר זאת תפיסת הגאון החסיד על ס׳ ליקוטי אמרים ודומיו, אשר מפורש בהם פי׳ ממלא כל עלמין ולית אתר פנוי מיניה כפשוטו ממש, ובעיני כבודו היא אפיקורסות גמורה לאמר שהוא ית׳ נמצא ממש בדברים שפלים ותחתונים ממש, ולפי מכתב מעלתם ע״ז נשרף הספר הידוע, ובפירוש מאמרים הנזכרים יש להם דרך נסתרה ונפלאה, ומלא כל הארץ כבודו היינו השגחה וכו׳.
ומי יתן ידעתיו ואמצאהו ואערכה לפניו משפטינו להסיר מעלינו כל תלונותיו וטענותיו הפילוסופיות אשר הלך בעקבותיהם לפי דברי תלמידיו הנ״ל לחקור אלקות בשכל אנושי, וכאשר קבלתי מרבותי נ״ע תשובה נצחת על כל דבריו.
It is heard that no one in Lita will be so arrogant as to fail to submit to the Vilna Gaon’s view and say openly that he was wrong, only in distant lands like Turkey, Italy, most of Germany and Poland major and minor. This is what I truly want, particularly in matters of faith that, according to what is heard in these lands from his students, that this is what he thought about the Tanya and similar: They say explicitly that the meaning of “He fills all the worlds and there is no place empty of Him” literally. In the Vilna Gaon’s eyes it is complete heresy to say that God exists literally in mundane, lower things…. [In his view] these sayings have a hidden meaning, that God’s providence fills the world, etc.
If only I could find him and arrange my case before him to remove all of his philosophical complaints, which according to his students followed in his study of God with his human intellect, as I have received from my teachers successful responses to all his words….
The Ba’al Ha-Tanya continues to base his views on the Arizal and Zohar. He also claims that the Vilna Gaon did not believe that all of the Arizal’s kabbalah all came from Eliyahu, much of it originating with the Arizal’s genius and therefore subject to rejection. (The truth of this claim is certainly disputed but irrelevant to our current discussion.)
We see that the Ba’al Ha-Tanya accepts the Vilna Gaon’s description of his views as panentheism. However, he defends this theological view as authentically Jewish while the Vilna Gaon rejects them as heresy.
In particular, the Ba’al Ha-Tanya portrays himself as the defender of tradition and the Vilna Gaon as the radical philosopher, the innovative theologian trying to determine on his own the nature of God.
I do not care to decide between these two great scholars. In my circles, we value the works of both without deeming either heretical. In particular, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, an intellectual descendant of the Vilna Gaon, strongly recommended studying the Tanya.
What I find most interesting is that the Vilna Gaon himself accused the Rambam of being misled by his philosophical pursuits (Bi’ur Ha-Gra to Yoreh De’ah 179:13, see Jacob Dienstag’s article on this in Talpiot, July 1949). Eventually, the Vilna Gaon was accused of the very same thing. History’s irony continues.
See also this post: Reflections on Returning from an Uncle Moishy Concert