Is the Lubavitch book Tanya really racist?

Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue has dropped a course on the Tanya, the 18th-century Lubavitch work, after congregants’ protests.



The debate about the Tanya is about values rather than freedom of speech, as some have contended.

The Hebrew Bible and classical rabbinic sources contain texts which, for example, command us to look after the stranger within our midst as we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. These sources inspire and provide a basis for living in today's society.

In contrast, other texts have, in common with almost all classical literature, the completely opposite viewpoint and clash with modern sensibilities.

For example, Rabbi Akiva sees the verse "You shall love your neighbour as yourself", as a fundamental principle in the Torah; however he considers that it applies only to Jews. Ben-Azzai responds that a greater principle in the Torah is that the whole of mankind is made in God's image, in other words the brotherhood of man.

The debate around the Tanya is really part of a much wider issue about how we read such challenging texts in our tradition. Joe Mintz, in an article on this page last month looking at racism in the Jewish community, wrote: "The Tanya is stark: ‘the souls of the nations of the world derive from the impure kelipot, which contain no good whatsoever'. Kelipot, or husks, is a kabbalistic concept, meaning the negative aspects of creation."

Although many Lubavitch Chasidim are uncomfortable with this statement, within the Tanya there is no direct counter-text. The view presented is that non-Jews are a different and lesser type of human being than Jews. Complex arguments have been presented to ameliorate this and of course the late Rebbe had campaigned for non-Jews to keep the seven Noachide laws. Nevertheless, the Lubavitch community can take these teaching to a logical conclusion and so, for example, do not accept the use of the Hertz Chumash and other Soncino commentaries on the Bible because they include the work of non-Jewish scholars.

Taken at face value, such teachings are inappropriate for a non-Lubavitch orthodox community. The United Synagogue believes in a "modern and inclusive brand of Judaism". I therefore felt obliged to object to a United Synagogue teaching them as part of our tradition. Notwithstanding that the Tanya's mystical approach to Judaism has great appeal for many people, there are many other places available where this can be studied.

While it is anachronistic to accuse any work before the 19th century of "racism", we have to decide how to approach texts which can be read as such nowadays. Of course, it would be wrong to judge the Alter Rebbe, the author of the Tanya, for this, just as one cannot condemn Shakespeare for Shylock. Both authors were geniuses whose works must be understood and appreciated in their context. There is nothing wrong in studying and teaching the Tanya, just so long as every word in it is not regarded as holy writ. But we would do well to get a grounding in classical Jewish sources first.

If our local church allowed a course of lectures uncritically teaching the racial or spiritual inferiority of Jews, we would be rightly upset and expect it to be stopped. We must not expect less from ourselves than we do from our neighbours. The question is: is "our" racism better than "their" racism?

Dan Rickman wrote his MA on attitudes towards non-Jews in the Talmud.


The claim that the Chasidic classic, the Tanya, is a racist work is astounding. Its accusers are obviously unfamiliar with the vocabulary of Jewish philosophy and mysticism which underlies its text. Let us review the relevant passage:

"The souls of the nations of idol-worshippers are from the other, the impure ‘shells' which contain no good at all, as stated in Etz Chaim 49:3. All the good that the nations of idol-worshippers do is done for their own sake, as stated in the Talmud [Baba Bathra 10b] on the verse ‘The kindness of the nations is sin' [Proverbs 14:34], ie that all the charity and kindness performed by the nations of idol-worshippers is done for the sake of self-glorification."

If the critics have problems with this passage, their complaint is against the Bible, the Talmud and the writings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. The Tanya is merely quoting these sources. Our Bible has more radical statements about the people of Israel being God's chosen people and God's witnesses on earth.
The passage speaks of idol-worshippers devoid of revealed religion. Elsewhere the author of the Tanya makes it quite clear that the "pious of the nations" (gentiles who follow the moral dictates of the Noachide Code) are excluded from the definition of idol-worshippers.

The critics' confusion is rooted in their ignorance of the kabbalistic term "impure shells". In their view this seems to imply that those idolaters are rooted in some demonic or Satanic source distinct from Divinity. In Judaism, of course, there is no such thing of something devoid of Divinity.

Had they attended a class in Tanya, they would have discovered that the realm of "impurity", too, is infused and sustained by the Divine emanations (the "holy sefirot"), without which nothing could exist. The "impure shells", too, are Divine creations for the purpose they serve, and the difference between "pure" and "impure" is simply how humans are to relate to them.

Most likely, these critics object also to the classical concept that Jews possess an additional "special soul" which distinguishes them from non-Jews, and cited in the Tanya. To them this surely is the ultimate racism. Yet the selfsame critics themselves proclaim this distinction and separation loud and clear at the conclusion of every Sabbath and festival when they recite the havdalah blessing, and every festival when they recite the section "Atah bechartanu" ("You have chosen us") in the Amidah. They do so because the Torah itself states this explicitly in Leviticus 20:24 and 26, "I have separated you from the nations to be Mine."

Jews are infused with an additional soul precisely because they need this special endowment to enable them to observe the Torah with its 613 commandments and to carry out their mission to be a Divine beacon to the nations, which requires intensified "energy" for this purpose. Racist? Then to claim that outstanding artists or scientists are endowed with special and extraordinary talents would also be an expression of morally objectionable racism.

To follow any religion fervently means to believe that you are in possession of an absolute truth that has an advantage over all other religions. Otherwise you have no reason to adhere to it with all your mind and soul.
The protesters argue that if a local church were to teach a course claiming Christians are spiritually superior to Jews, they think that should not be tolerated. What do they think is being taught there? Obviously the New Testament. And isn't that precisely what the New Testament is teaching?

In short, if the erudite critics at Hampstead Garden Suburb insist on cancelling a class in Tanya at their synagogue because of that text's alleged racism, they should be consistent and also cancel all classes in the Jewish Bible, Liturgy, Talmud and the Codes. Anything less is pure hypocrisy.

Yitzchak Schochet is rabbi of Mill Hill United Synagogue

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